Chris Warner and Don Schminke
Chris Warner and Don Schmincke

Chris Warner is a world-class climber who has led more than 150 international mountaineering expeditions. He is also a successful entrepreneur, whose Earth Treks chain of climbing centers serves over 100,000 customers annually. Don Schmincke is a scientist and renegade management specialist whose provocative teachings bring together such diverse disciplines as anthropology, organizational dynamics and genetic evolution. He founded The SAGA Institute in the seventies. Chris and Don met on an expedition and hit it off immediately, around the question, “What does mountain-climbing reveal about genuine leadership?” High Altitude Leadership answers that question. It is also one of the most gripping, fascinating, compelling “business” books I’ve ever read. — J.D.M.

With your disparate backgrounds—the mad scientist and the entrepreneur-explorer—how did the two of you come to work together?

Don: I took part in a nonprofit charity expedition that Chris’s company led, a Climb for a Hope Breast Cancer fundraiser. I was between books and working on another project. I approached Chris about the idea of doing a book together, and it turned out he had been interested in doing something himself.

Chris: The timing of our meeting had a big impact on the whole process, too. I had just come from running a Wharton leadership expedition in Ecuador. We’ve been running these programs for Wharton students since 2000. I stepped out of that course right onto this other course that Don was on, so the Wharton experience was fresh on my mind, which made the conjunction of climbing and business leadership a natural topic of conversation.

I had worked on a project with Mike Useem, Warren Bennis, Jim Collins and others on a project called Upward Bound, a book on business written by nine authors who are both businessman and experienced mountain climbers. After returning from that charity climb, I sent a copy of my Upward Bound chapter to Don, and he sent me a copy of his bestseller The Code of the Executive, so we were able to see where each of us was coming from.

When I talk with you guys you give the impression that you’ve known each other for decades—but this all happened quite recently, right?

Chris: We met in January of 2007 and started talking about this concept. Don brought it to his agent, who thought it was a great idea—and we had a publisher on board by the end of the year.

Reading your approach to leadership, the word that comes to mind is “reality.” You both seem to be saying, “Don’t give me theory—tell me what’s real.”

Chris: That’s exactly right. We both were disappointed and frustrated with so much of what’s being taught on business and leadership. It just didn’t seem to reflect reality. For example, you have the “group formation” model that says, “Storming, forming, norming, performing.” The only reason anybody remembers this is because it rhymes.

People say, “Oh—we’re at the storming phase!” But why this specific phase? Because that’s what it says in the little rhyme. Okay, great. They said the same thing about Little Bo Peep, who lost her sheep—but that doesn’t mean you have to lose your sheep, just because Bo Peep did.

It’s easy to get attracted to a model like this, but then you find out it doesn’t have anything to do with reality, it has to do with marketing.

Don: I have always been called something of a renegade when it comes to business theory. As a consultant, I always look at the prevailing popular theories and then run in the opposite direction—because the failure rates of people following these theories are so high. I see billions of dollars being wasted on these pop theories, and it makes me mad.

Consequently, for the past twenty-plus years I’ve made it my mission to apply some sense of a genuine scientific approach to business, and in the process have discovered some models and procedures that actually work.

Chris Warner
Chris Warner

That’s interesting: one of you is dealing with hard science, the other is dealing with hard rocks—and both are dealing with the hard realities of what works in the business world.

Chris: If I screw up, people die.

Don: Yeah, I took the safer route.

Tell me about this concept of “leadership in the death zone.” What is the death zone, and why is it valuable to study?

Chris: In a literal sense, the death zone is the area above 8,000 meters, or 26,400 feet, where our bodies can’t survive for long periods of time. Every moment we’re up there, we’re becoming weaker both physically and mentally. You’ve got to get up there and back as quickly as you can, if you want to survive.

How does leadership show up differently in the death zone? What’s the value of putting leadership into that laboratory?

Don: Going into the death zone moves things out of the business-as-usual domain you typically see in leadership research.

In my talks, I’ll say, “We’re going to take a journey that’s a little different from typical leadership theory: we’re going to use facts and data.” And the audience always laughs, because they know what I’m talking about. They know that most of what they hear or read is theory or philosophy with no real data to it.

I’m always looking for hard scientific truths. I had spent a lot of time looking at evolutionary genetics, as well as historically documented, real-life practices, and had been trying to figure out where I could find a new laboratory environment for this study—and suddenly there I was on a mountain, thinking, “Man, this is raw biology in action here! There are no consultants, no theories, no motivational speakers—and these teams work!”

In Chapter 1 you say, “Great fear is the nemesis of great leadership.” In the world of business we’re not typically talking about literal death. How does fear of death show up in leadership?

Chris: From all the feedback we’re getting, this is the chapter that most gets people in the moment. Several people have told me they literally quit their jobs after reading that chapter.

Really! Why so?

Chris: Because they realized that they were trapped and needed to take action.

The whole idea of high altitude leadership is that we give you extreme examples of these eight dangers. Because it’s about mountain-climbing and not about business, for some reason it’s easier for people to understand and grab the concepts.

Maybe this works on the same premise as good literature: you expose a conflict, and then the main characters have to deal with it—and it’s through the dealing with it that they undergo character development.

In our book, right in the first two pages, someone dies—and that’s not fiction. I’m watching this man fall off a mountain to his death, right before my eyes. This is no joke. When you read this section, you’re gripped.

Well I sure was. It wasn’t just your typical, “Oh, I couldn’t put it down…”—I really couldn’t put it down. My knuckles were white.

Don: That story that opens the book just happened last summer; Chris was on K2 and called me on his satellite phone to tell me what had happened. It was a tragic experience, but we knew we had to tell it in the book.

Because these things really happen in business. Not literally, of course, but even if people aren’t literally dying, catastrophes and huge setbacks happen. And the question is, will the team let that stop them cold, or are they going to embrace it and use the experience?

In this case, Chris ended up leading one of the most successful summits in history. And I see companies all the time that end up leading incredibly successful summits—once they accept death.

We’ve certainly seen some pretty dramatic deaths in business lately, from Lehman Brothers and AIG to the Big Three automakers flirting with bankruptcy. Are people getting that this is exactly what you’re talking about—that these times offer an absolutely huge opportunity for leadership?

Don: We certainly hope so. Chris is no stranger to death, so in that episode on K2 he was able to find the ground and move through the experience with the team.

But we don’t teach death in business school. We don’t teach people, “Here’s what it’s like to give up and bury a project that isn’t working, or a career goal that just isn’t working out, or a customer that we should have let go of a long time ago.” When people are faced with this kind of situation, it’s a whole new experience that they find incredibly threatening.

It strikes me that in our culture, unlike most times in the past, we really don’t see death. Death happens in hospitals; it’s not real. And it’s the same in business: failure is a possibility we don’t like to talk about.

Don: Exactly. We have this big self-esteem movement going on, and people are told the truth only later in their career—and it just crumbles them.

A professor told me about a Ph.D. candidate she saw the other day, and she had to tell her, “You’re not good enough yet. Here’s what you need to work on, here’s where you’re weak.” And the candidate started crying. Nobody had ever told her this before.

We’ve got leaders out there who should seek death a little more often, so they can be more innovative and not as reactive. It would make them better leaders.

The next danger you talk about is selfishness, which you counter-position to “saga.” How does selfishness show up in business, and how does saga figure into it?

Don: Selfishness isn’t something we need to be embarrassed about, it’s part of our humanity—even at high altitudes. We’re all selfish.

The ego’s not a bad thing. Research shows that selfish behaviors are most effective for genetic evolution. But it gets in the way when you’re trying to run a business.

There were people on the recent K2 expedition who didn’t have a common saga together, and for a lot of them, their selfishness held sway. And look what happened.

Chris: Eleven of them died.

Don: We use the ancient Norse term saga to describe this concept that keeps coming up throughout history, of a compelling story that everyone buys into. The saga is what evokes people’s passion for the strategic result of the whole. It’s what gives people a higher-order goal to achieve beyond their own ego’s agenda. The passion for contributing to the saga supercedes the passion of the ego.

What you call saga sounds a lot like what people talk about when they use terms like mission, purpose and values.

Chris: We try to step a bit past that. The problem is, you have to come up with something big enough that it’s actually going to change people’s behavior. To change behavior, people have to be engaged on a much more powerful level than your typical corporate mission.

At Earth Treks, our mission is to share our passion for climbing. You could say, okay, if we’re all passionate about climbing then we’re going to do well. That’s fine—but how do I actually change behavior, day in and day out, so that your idea of passion is the same as my idea of passion?

I really have to show you that this is a path we’re all on, and that as a result of being on this path, you are going to grow as a person and benefit. Then you do it in a way that’s not ego-driven. It’s almost like a loop: if you act more selflessly, the whole team benefits, our customers are happier and pay us more money, and you end up being happier and getting paid more—and when you see that, you strive to serve the saga and act even more selflessly.

When that thing is spinning, everybody gets caught up in the excitement of it. It’s dramatic. The problem every organization runs into is when people lose sight of the saga, this creates a drama void. What do people do with a void? They fill it. With what? With their own petty dramas—and it kills everything. Now you have the office politics and everything everybody hates.

Don: The problem with most mission statements is that they’re nice, touchy-feely, motivational statements. The poster goes up on the wall—and when things go wrong everybody turns and runs. Or they freeze up or start getting dysfunctional.

A saga gives you the power to persevere, even when things don’t go right. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or Gilgamesh, or Beowulf—these were stories of passion that allowed people to persevere.

Without perseverance, we may be a great company, but as soon as we lose sales or hit a downturn, we say, “Oh gee, it isn’t working,” and everybody gets depressed. No—this is exactly the time to rally. If we’re led by a saga, then hard times become the time we really show up, not the point when we bail!

Chris: Compelling sagas are not generally created by committee, either, as mission statements often are. You find a saga when you’re in the shower, or you sit bolt upright in your bed at 2:00 in the morning and go, “Oh my God, it just hit me—I know our purpose!” It’s like suddenly discovering the meaning of life.

It’s tough to outsource passion.

Chris: Right—and if you don’t have passion, you’re never going to have a compelling saga.

We were on a call the other day with a guy from Weyerhaeuser, and he said, “I don’t understand this compelling saga. We just make cardboard boxes.”

Don: We explained that cardboard boxes are not why they are there. Just because you make cardboard boxes doesn’t mean you can’t have a saga. Look at coffee: what could be a more commonplace commodity? But look what Starbucks did with coffee.

Another danger you talk about is “tool seduction.” Tools are a big deal in the networking business—DVDs, CDs and websites that give a great presentation. What does “tool seduction” look like, and how does it hurt us?

Chris: There’s this book called The Go-Giver, and it talks about this woman who works at a real estate firm—maybe you’ve read it. [laughs] In the book, Debra Davenport learns all these closing techniques—but they don’t make her business work.

How do you develop relationships with people? How do you get people to want to network with you? It’s not because you have the best tools.

Don: In the absence of a compelling saga, it’s much easier to get seduced by the latest shiny new tools. Tools are great, when properly applied. But they’re only tools.

At the moment, Hershey Corporation is talking about selling out to Nestlé. They were implementing the new ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] system. Everyone’s blogging about it, and its failure has become a big deal. They got distracted and forgot about selling chocolate. We see this in companies all the time, and the failure rates are unbelievable. It happened at Nike, and Dell canceled an ERP system after two years of work and $200 million in spending. Whether it’s ERP, or Six Sigma, or TQM, whatever the latest cool new thing is, tool seduction is everywhere.

If the business community would just get this one danger, we would all probably save $300 billion in wasted consulting fees and training over the next year.

Chris: The top four or five reasons people die on the mountain are human error. It’s not a failure of the ropes or the carabiner, it’s failures of judgment.

Talk to me about danger #5, lone heroism, which is Indiana Jones on the mountaintop.

Chris: I just reread The E-Myth; Gerber lays it out beautifully. As he says, most people are working in their business, not on their business, so the business revolves around them. If they left for a month or two, the thing would fall apart.

I hear this all the time. I come back from a climbing trip, and someone will say, “How did you get away for three months? If I left my business for three days, it would fall apart!”

So the person who’s stuck in that situation is being the hero of the business?

Chris: Exactly. They don’t think their business can exist without them. What a self-limiting perception. If your guys can’t do without you, then you’ve certainly put together a weak team!

Don: If you think about it, where is the strong team around John Wayne or Indiana Jones? The media inspires us to be the lone hero.

You get a love interest and maybe a goofy sidekick.

Chris: Deming said that 85 percent of the pro-

blems in business are caused by management.

This is almost a self-answering question, but why is being the hero so appealing?

Chris: Because you’re feeding your ego. You’re convincing yourself that the world would fall apart without you.

Don: And we’re raised to think that way, especially in this culture. In other cultures there’s a lot of consideration for the group and the community, but the U.S. was built on people setting off alone.

Still, it does seem that when there’s great difficulty, it often takes one strong personality to pull things together and show the way. How do you find that balance between being the one who goes first and shows the way, yet not undermining the power of the team?

Don: It’s not about whether you go first, it’s are you going alone?

Chris: It’s got to be about partnership. A strong leader needs the help of all the other people. It’s going to be on the strength of his partners that this thing is going to either be successful or be one more miserable failure.

Don: The damage a lone hero causes can be pretty significant. We’re all smarter together than just one of us alone.

Chris: It’s so seductive, this idea that we can make a team and then the team exists in order to make us look good. Once again, it’s ego-driven.

In a sense, the most important question today’s leaders can ask is, where is that next group of leaders, and how are we preparing them to be in this leadership position? How do we find tomorrow’s leaders and prepare them for the journey ahead?”