Project Practitioners > High-Altitude Leadership - A highly-recommended book

High-Altitude Leadership - A highly-recommended book

By Cinda Voegtli


(I'm moving this previous post from a private blog to here to make it easily available to everyone. And I still love the book!)

The angle this book takes on leadership -- lessons from high-altitude, highly dangerous  mountain climbs, results in a fun, interesting read.  And I found those lessons to be very concrete and thought-provoking -- and with good coverage of organizational AND project issues, which I have not often seen in leadership books.

The full title is High Altitude Leadership:  What the World's Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success.  One of the authors is an experienced mountain climber who has also taught leadership for years.  He pulls compelling life-and-death stories from his climbing journals, and for each one identifies the major mistake made in preparation, attitude, or decision-making, leading to tragic results.  The other author is billed as a "mad scientist turned provocative management sage"  with speaking, major publication writing, and consulting credentials.  The authors map the climbing lessons to the situations we find ourselves in at work, and similar common mistakes in those three areas that are essentially leadership failures that can lead to major organizational issues and project failures. (Lots of references to project issues in this book).

I am highly allergic to theoretical, trite, or pompous books, especially on squishy subjects like leadership.  This is NOT one of those.  I love this book. It uses plain language and fearlessly and somewhat cheekily calls out situations we all see A LOT at work.  I refer back to it when I'm facing tough situations -- hard strategic calls for the company or hard project issues, or when I just want to be reminded and inspired. 

The key lessons are handled in a style I personally like in books - formatted with scannable headings that serve to get key points across quickly, and overall an efficient read and easy to refer back to.  The authors lay out 8 key leadership dangers and then devote a chapter to each.  The dangers are Fear of Death, Selfishness, Tool Seduction :-), Arrogance, Lone Heroism, Cowardice, Comfort, and Gravity.   I found the use of dangerous climbing sitautions to illustrate leadersihp points to be a bonus -- kept it an interesting read and a refreshingly different way to attack the subject. 

For each danger the authors tell a climbing story from the journal; map that situation to the work world and lay out the similar danger WE face; and then give "survival tips" to avoid that danger.

I'll illustrate the type of content with one excerpt, on one of my favorite dangers - that of tool seduction.  (We talk a LOT about how to achieve "PM light" and "just enough" project management (see our upcoming virtual Fast Ramp if you're interested in what that means!), using tools judiciously and flexibly as a MEANS to an end on our project, not the end itself. By "tools" I mean templates, forms, meetings, software tools...)   After telling a story about a disastrous climbing season on Everest, where the latest tools did NOT save the day, were NOT a substitue for judgment and flexibility, the authors say:

"You want to have the best tools.... But in mountaineering, an overdependence on Sherpas, tools and infrastructure can limited talented climbers. Similarly, a parade of consultants packing the latest tools and theories can bog down progress and distract companies from focusing on the vital issues.  

Of course tools are important. Before climbing to the death zone, a lot of time was spent testing gear and perfecting skills.  But in critical moments, even the best tools break or fail in some other way, resources are lost, or circumstances counted on fail to materialize - yet still you must survive.  The problem isn't with the tools; it's how you relate to them.  

Tools offer hope, and they make people feel that they have the right answer. But a problem occurs when employees use tools as crutches for safe answers.  Both dead climbers and bankrupt companies [and failed projects?! my addition] are found grasping great tools."

This chapter goes on to cover ways to detect that your project or organization is suffering from Tool Seduction, and ways to counter it.  

As another quick example, in the chapter on Comfort as a Danger, and conversely a chance to show leadership, the authors assert this: "Comfort promotes politeness.  But politeness eats truth. And lack of truth eats profits." I love that :-).  They go on to ask questions to help us suss out whether we've let comfort get in the way of acknowledging hard issues or letting go of doomed projects, or left us settling for sub-par team or individual performance or outright deadweight. They go on to talk about the difference between misplaced persistance in the face of a different reality, vs. productive perseverance that can lead to really solving tough issues. The part on perseverance includes a discussion of the power of TRUTH to motivate in difficult situations vs. depending on supposedly-motivational rah-rah techniques. YES.

In closing, I really like this book and hope I've given you enough description to decide if you might find it helpful as well!   (If so, the Amazon link for it is here.)

(And if any of you have a favorite book on leadership applied to projects, feel free to post as a comment, or shoot me a note at )

Best, Cinda

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