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  • Susan Snedaker

Free Climbing and Leadership - Four Takeaways

I recently watched the documentary, The Dawn Wall ( It’s a story about rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson who free climbed an incredibly difficult (previously impossible) portion of El Capitan, called The Dawn Wall, in Yosemite National Park. They spent six years carefully plotting and planning their climb. They are free climbers – no ropes to help them up the sheer face of the wall. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it – it’s about far more than rock climbing. Here’s what I took away from the film.

The Dawn Wall Climber

(Image from

There’s No Substitute for Planning

So our climber friends in this movie spent years planning their ascent. Literally. Years. In business, we can’t always spend that much time planning, but the lesson is that taking time to plan a project of any kind is always a wise investment. As you’ll read below, that plan should leverage the input and expertise of the team members.

Sometimes the Only Way Forward is Back

Not all progress is forward. Our climbers faced a challenge that could not be solved by forward progress. Sometimes with a team, a goal and particularly, with a challenging project, progress comes from stepping back to a ‘last known good’ state and figuring out a new plan. I’ve worked on projects that got sideways and the only way to sort them out was to pause, go back several steps and re-strategize. It can be challenging to step off the project plan in this way, but I’d rather have to defend that action than try to rescue a seriously failing project. When you find your new path, you’ll bring with you the lessons learned from having had to step back and re-assess. You almost always find the right path forward at that point.

Sometimes the Smartest Move is No Move

Our climbers were facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle (both literal and figurative) in The Dawn Wall. For a period of time, they just hung out where they were – resting, regrouping, and reconnoitering. It paid off.

As a leader who is driven to achieve results (including myself here), it’s easy to rush to action. You find a solution, your team creates a plan and you want to zoom ahead. Sometimes that’s the right approach. Sometimes, when the solution is elusive, the plan is rickety and there is no clear path forward, you’re better off allowing things to settle down. I sometimes use the image of a glass of water with silt in it. Stir it around, the water becomes cloudy. Let it settle, the water is crystal clear. Sometimes doing nothing is the best choice. When you’re unsure, when there is no clear path forward, stop. If you don’t know what to do, wait until you do. [Note: this is different from analysis paralysis, a problem that comes from feeling there’s never enough perfect information or timing to proceed.]

Success Requires Use of the Unique Talents and Abilities of Each Person on the Team

Yes, sometimes you can get there on your own, but more often than not, success is a team effort. In order to realize the greatest success possible, you'll need to leverage the unique strengths and talents of each person on the team. In the Dawn Wall, both climbers had different backgrounds and skills. Their ultimate achievement relied heavily on the skills of both climbers, not just one.

The same is true in business. As a leader, you may think you have the answers – and you might. But you might also be blocking the view, so to speak. If you allow each member of the team to contribute according to their unique talents, you will not only have a stronger team, you’ll get a better outcome. When people are acknowledged and appreciated for what they bring to the table, they are more willing to work hard to use those skills to achieve results. The opposite is also true. Stand in their way, micro-manage the daylights out of them or skillfully manipulate them to your point of view, and you’ll get a muddled mess and about 50% of their ability.

I read a line recently that stuck with me. A senior leader in an organization asked (paraphrasing) ‘How is this person smart?’ As a leader, you should ask yourself how is each person you work with smart. What do they excel at? What about their job do they most enjoy? Leverage that to the benefit of the individual, the team, and the organization.

And the final takeaway is this - if you think anything in your job is scary, think about scaling a sheer rock face without a rope. That will put things in perspective for you.

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