Stretching oneself to the maximum can reveal what we are made of. Whether the subject matter is a test of mental strength or physical, it is exhilarating to overcome a daunting obstacle. Sir Edmund Hillary is celebrated for his perseverance in conquering Mount Everest. One of my LinkedIn contacts and an internationally known innovation resource is Gijs van Wulfen. Van Wulfen states that, in the 1950s, the route to Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet. Nepal allowed one expedition per year.
Sir Edmund Hillary had been part of a British reconnaissance expedition to the mountain in 1951. The 1953 Everest expedition for which he is now famous consisted of a huge team of over 400 people. Expedition leader Hunt named two assault teams. Hillary and Norgay were the second assault team. The first team only reached the South Col, about 100 meters below the summit. Then Hillary and Norgay got their chance. They reached the 8,848-meter high summit, the highest point on Earth, at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953.
Gijs says the following 10 management lessons came to mind as he read the Hillary accounts:
1. Passion. As a youngster, Hillary was a great dreamer, read many adventure books and walked many miles with his head in the clouds. He was unaware his passion for adventure would make him, together with Tenzing Norgay, the first man to set foot on the highest point on Earth.
2. Urgency. In 1952 the British heard that in 1954 the French had been given permission to attempt Everest. The British wanted more than anything to be first. The expedition just had to succeed.
3. Teamwork. Getting to the summit of Everest is all about teamwork. As Hillary wrote: “John Hunt and D Namgyal’s lift to the depot on the South-East Ridge; George Low, Alf Gregory and Ang Nyima with their superb support at Camp IX; and the pioneer effort by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon to the South Summit. Their contribution had enabled us to make such good progress.”
4. Courage. The higher you get on Everest the more courage you need. At 7,800 meters Hillary wrote in his diary: “Even wearing all my down clothing I found the icy breath from outside penetrating through my bones. A terrible sense of fear and loneliness dominated my thoughts. What is the sense of this all? I asked myself.”
5. Test. On the 1951 reconnaissance expedition, team members tested oxygen equipment and did research on high-altitude physiology. The results of both studies were important in determining the right approach for Everest in 1953.
6. Initiative. While in India, Hillary read in a newspaper that the British were taking an expedition to the south side of Mount Everest in 1951. He contacted expedition leader Eric Shipton and suggested that a couple of New Zealanders could make a substantial contribution to the team. And they were invited!
7. Choices. The British Himalayan Committee replaced the 1951 expedition leader Eric Shipton with Colonel John Hunt, a climber. After eight failed attempts on Everest they needed someone to the top first, before the French would have their chance.
8. Overcome setbacks. Along the way there are always major setbacks. After finding a new route up Everest during the reconnaissance expedition of 1951, the British heard that the Swiss had obtained permission for two attempts on Everest the following year. The only thing the British could do was wait and see if the Swiss would succeed.
9. Competition. Hunt proposed that Evans and Bourdillon should use the closed-circuit oxygen equipment to reach the South Summit and Norgay and Hillary would push to the top with the open-circuit oxygen. The competition fueled the eventual success of Hillary’s team.
10. Luck. Hillary, a New Zealander, was lucky to qualify as a British subject and be invited to join the British team. Secondly, in 1952 the Swiss failed to climb Everest on their two attempts.
How do you view these management lessons in light of your own organization’s efforts to be innovative and competitive?