Bernie Anderson
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the blog

Current musings, whatever they may be. 

Rock-Climbing and Risk-Aversion: The Story of Two Leaders


Alex Honnold climbs big walls.

Here's a video of Alex climbing a really big wall (from a 60 Minutes segment in 2011).

A lot of people climb things, but what makes Alex unique is the fact he does so without ropes or a safety harness. He climbs free solo - and has set all kinds of records doing so.

Watch the video. It’s both impressive and harrowing.

I could never do that. I don’t ever want to do that. My risk aversion meter would be off the charts. One mistake and you're dead.

But I’m super impressed with Alex. I hope he lives a long life and will have stories to tell his grandchildren.

Free solo climbing is leadership from the front. One person takes all the risks, does most of the work, shows the rest of us how it’s done. It’s impressive to watch, and even inspiring, at times.

It’s not all that empowering because most of us sit back and say, “I could never do that.”

So we never try.


Somewhere today, in an average town, that contains an average climbing gym, is a climbing instructor. We’ll call her Alexandra. Alexandra is not famous and doesn’t have her own YouTube channel. She teaches kids how to climb safely (with ropes and harnesses). She loves to climb outdoors on the weekends. But she takes friends with her, showing them “the ropes.” She is a teacher and teaches them how to succeed with difficult and challenging climbs. Her passion for climbing and enjoying the view from the top spills into her relationships and into her students.

Alexandra is leading from the back.

How Leaders Take Risks

Leadership is about risk-taking. And, like Alex, leaders must be willing to take the risks necessary to move forward. Aversion to risk can’t be in the leadership psyche.

The difference between Alex and Alexandra is not about willingness to take risks. The difference is that one takes on all the risk. The other is creating conditions conducive for others to join in the struggle.

Leaders who lead from the back work hard to make risk “safe,” or, at least, accessible. They work with others incrementally, giving the opportunity for small wins - and non-fatal errors. Small steps, leading to greater confidence, leading to greater heights.

Very few people will ever climb El Capitan, without ropes and harnesses. But, lots of people can climb El Capitan (or a similar peak) with proper safety measures. Alexandra is empowering people to do just that.

Share power and promote learning. Help others innovate.

The process is long and the work is hard because other people have to be considered. Others' strengths. Other's weaknesses.

But, when we do this (lead from the back of the room), more people are empowered to act and to potentially succeed. Sure, there's less glory and prestige. My advanced technical skills may not even be noticed.

But the thrill is to watch others learn to enjoy the climb and experience the spectacle of the scenery. Sometimes the student exceeds the teacher. That's when the leader in the back can smile to herself, knowing her work here is finished.

The view from the top is the same for everyone and is even more satisfying when it's shared.