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Leadership lessons from the El Capitan climb

5 min read


El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (Credit: Mike Murphy via Wikipedia)

They did it! Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson climbed a rock that everyone thought was impossible to climb. Much has been written and more will be written about their extraordinary feat.

One view of their climbing that has struck me is that there are many lessons for leaders that we can glean from what they did. So as I continue to share vicariously in this ultimate event, I can’t help but think about the extraordinary examples of leadership that we have learned from the two men.

  1. Focus like a laser. The precision required for the El Capitan climb in Yosemite National Park leaves me in awe. In dealing with issues of people or tasks, it is essential for a leader to focus with the “eyes of a super creature” (Superman or Catwoman). Regardless of the size of the target, it is essential to be totally absorbed. Attention must never dip; if it does, the end result may be less than the leader hoped for. The leader must attend with every cell in his or her body, as the watching and listening are the drivers of success. Leaders must then be precise with feedback to their teams.
  1. Share every aspect. Can you imagine how the mind, heart and body must have been engaged for each of the climbers? Their success rested upon the constant interplay of these three elements. The experience is total when each player is able to share what is happening — in their minds, hearts and bodies — as things move along. Leaders can leave nothing to chance when it comes to what followers need to know. Constructing and using a mental or electronic communications matrix will lead to near-perfect knowledge and action on the part of all involved in each situation.
  1. Stick with it. There was an obvious personal quality that stuck out for me. It was tenacity. On more than one occasion during the climb, Tommy or Kevin could be seen trying to move from one position on the rock to another. There are lots of reasons why that could happen, but the important thing is that a missed move did not dissuade either climber from continuing to move forward. Leaders who get results are never seen giving up. Whatever the driving factors may be (employees, customers, regulators, etc.) to reach a certain place, all must maintain the commitment to reach the outcome desired. (Note: It is better, though, to give up on a result deemed impossible to attain than to waste resources on an ultimate dead end.)
  1. Count on me. Kevin and Tommy had an astonishingly close relationship during the climb. The loyalty and confidence that grew stronger each hour was something that leaders ought to prize among themselves and their fellow travelers. Loyalty grows when you feel as connected to each other, as these climbers did. This was the result of sharing, as mentioned above, but also a result of using the value that sharing provided. Confidence also grew because each could count on the other for strength and fortitude. Confidence grew in each of the individuals, and it grew in them as a unit. “I can count on you and you can count on me.” Imagine the energy to perform when leaders create that kind of trusting synergy.
  1. Touch the surroundings. The world of “need to know” around Tommy and Kevin was limited. They needed to keep the next place on the rock that would be ascended to in view all the time. Constant monitoring of the weather, especially wind changes, was paramount, too. Plus, they had to understand moisture patterns along the way. All of this understanding allowed them to proceed with confidence. Leaders who are constantly aware of what is going on around them can be better prepared for what might come next. That preparation must be drenched in flexibility, just as it was for the climbers. Their flexibility had no limits. Does the ability to “turn on a dime” give leaders an opportunity to pause and reflect?
  1. Keep perspective. Tommy and Kevin knew 1) their climbing skills, 2) how to move cautiously, 3) when to be creative, 4) the distinct nature of their task, 5) their preparation was spot on and 6) when to reach down for more energy and courage. Leaders who take a self-inventory of these key knowledge factors at any point during a task (individual or team) can go a long way in gaining whatever result is being sought. Their story should inspire all leaders to determine the key success factors in the planning process and stay mindful of them all along the way. The key is not to leave anything out that is important.
  1. Hold yourself accountable. The climbers held themselves accountable for the results. As leaders, they gained agreement and then executed. As leaders we are responsible for the plan and the execution. Not the other person. Not all those people on the third floor. Just yourself. Keep your eyes on yourself and your execution. Establish contingencies so that everyone in the organization will act on what they are accountable for — after those areas have been thoroughly established via comprehensive training and ongoing communication and feedback. Leaders must insure that a culture of conversation on accountabilities and resources for training are top priorities for the organization.

OK, leaders. Let’s strap on our boots and get climbing!

Robert C. Preziosi is a professor of management at the Huizenga School of Business where he teaches leadership and HRM. He trains businesses and government agencies on aspects of leadership, creativity and critical thinking. He is an occasional blogger who can be reached at [email protected]. You can visit his website at

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