Sep 23

“Reaching the Top…

Stephan Polomski
Stephan Polomski is director human resources, coach and trainer

… is not the objective” – that was what Hanspeter Eisendle, our mountain guide, said, just when we reached Cassian´s Peak at 2581 meters height in the Sarentin Alps in South Tyrol last week.

After some hours marching through walls of fog and the sentiment of deception that the Dolomites and their spectacular summits on the other side of the huge valley would not be visible, I could calibrate a certain surprise through the fatigue on the faces of our middle management, when they heard: reaching the top is not the objective.

And it was this sentence, which occupied our minds the two following days of our workshop, when we reflected upon the individual leadership model of each manager in the group.

“Reaching the top is not the objective” is of course a provocation especially for young leaders who are drilled to outperform the top they have just reached and to continue from top to next top to the next one. It must also be a provocation for those who forgot on their way to the next seemingly unreachable objective what it means to be at home in the sense to be with oneself embedded in one´s own mental and physical resources.

Resources and knowing one´s own individual limits were another topic which was essential for our young leaders defining their very individual basis of how they wanted to lead. During this workshop my young colleagues understood what it really meant that it is yourself, your own person who is the first and most important tool when it comes to leadership. They understood how essential it is to take good care of oneself and to reflect one self.

And reflecting oneself means to look into the mirror of nature and your team.

Hanspeter Eisendle himself did reach many tops, many peaks. He is one of the most acknowledged mountaineers in the European Alps and has worldwide reputation and experience. And at the same time, we were struck by his modesty and his immense tolerance: his attitude towards our managers, towards people we met on our path or to those who served us was always alike.

Our managers could experience what it means to show respect by treating everybody just as human being – just equal. And this attitude was perfectly natural because, what I think, it was in line with Hanspeter´s inner conviction, his very set of values. And one of his first remarks, starting the tour, was, that we should skip to address ourselves formally – which meant to skip the German “Sie” talking to each other – as we had to be close to each other in mountain in every sense. Everybody depends on everybody not only in a moment of crisis. In my eyes and ears, seeing and listing, the mountain became life; the mountain became the challenge which Sysiphos had to take forever – all alone.

Hanspeter said, we all together form a team, we stay together and at the same time everybody should follow his own power and possibilities – in his wording: to follow his own tempo. In case the distance would become too far, those in the front line would wait for the others. This rule was so simple, so true and at the same time, in the business world, which tends to be crueler than nature, so impossible.

This was how Hanspeter made it safe for everybody, with a deep sense for humaneness and democracy. And although the tour was challenging for those who were not used to walk uphill at a height of over  2000 meters the pressure to reach the top passed off and a freed the motivation to do it happily because there was a reliable team and a trustworthy leader. Hanspeter set the frame and our group followed – and there was not for a second a doubt in his mute leadership.

It was himself to invite us to question his decisions in case we were not sure if he was doing the right thing. I am not perfect, he said, I might be at fault. – However, from the first moment on, it was him to follow our capabilities, our needs, and he was the one inquiring about them, and then, very softly and at the same time decisive with very simple orders like “let´s continue now”, we followed our joint way, up and down again.

“Reaching the top is not the objective”: a provocation for some – and an invitation for others to meditate on the values of our business world, which forgot to honor the path we go together with others in a team towards achievement. In my eyes, this metaphor is a worldwide issue. A business world who forgot, that our companies socialize individuals, human beings more than families, schools and universities do, and thus are more in charge, are more asked to take responsibility not only for the single organizational system but for the whole, meaning society, integrating interests, integrating needs, cultures and aspirations.

A business world which drills for impeccable success, but does not prepare for failure and defeat – this cruel experience where own physical and mental limits conjugate with fate, unforeseen incidents which happen suddenly, fog, thunder, crisis. – This kind of business world has a core where weakness, anxiety and vulnerability are residing by fading out the very feeling: there is something, which is mightier, bigger, stronger than me, than my team, my company and business model, stronger than everything I belong to. Fading out the possibility to disconcertingly confess: I have to give up.

A mere focus on success, on gains, on more unmasks its inner vulnerability and weakness, in both: concept and implementation. It unmasks fear.

My hypothesis is: a true leader, the mature person, knows, what this means: to fail. He knows about summits and he knows about abysses. Personal ones, professional ones. Knowing what defeat means is knowing what dying will be. Death is the final limit. Those who fear nothing, those who are calm, they might have looked into the abyss of no return and gained at the same time the experience of life at the edge. This, I suppose, makes the hand of the mountain guide safe, this is what makes leader and his decisions trustworthy.

I suppose, Hanspeter Eisendle knows that as well. Many times, he was forced to give up a tour, a mountain, a peak, an objective. And still, we perceived him as successful leader we wanted to follow.

Leaders are those, who move themselves and others for a bigger cause than a peak or a top objective. They move themselves and others in order to celebrate live and – as I say – resonance, the feeling of staying together and sharing the experience, trusting each other even when the tears of weakness and desperation are falling down on the icy ground. Leaders accompany themselves and their teams through the process of a joint experience – and sometimes, hopefully often, the delight of a moment of excellence.

Everything is about resonance and so it is no wonder, that for Hanspeter the most overwhelming experience was not reaching the top of the mountains tops, but the birth of his first child. And this is about love.

Love and freedom. The greatest words mankind ever shaped in its age long history. The greatest principles leaders may ever apply.

Only the limits, meaning the awareness of something, humans cannot influence; the cognition of our physical natural body, confined and ending as it is; the cognition of nature outside ourselves, they set the modest framework in which we govern our fate and in which we, as humans, might hear the call to govern and to design the economical principle. Because we – mastering ourselves – live for greater values than profit.

We are the masters of our decision how to lead and where to lead. We decide how to treat and socialize people, people who are children, our own and those we take responsibility for because we embody functions which force us to lead.

For me, the leadership style incorporated by Hanspeter Eisendle is a key to a democratic and integrated world of tolerance, freedom and love. A natural leadership, deeply inspiring – and again, reframing the sheer madness and brutality of our actual business world. A business world which forgot ethical limits. It is a silent, a modest plea to guard one´s own attitude and to take responsibility for one´s own fate meaning one´s own behavior. By doing so, our society will change towards applying humanitarian principles.

The top is one of many objectives on our path. He leaves home, Hanspeter said, in order to come back home again.

Truly, meeting Hanspeter Eisendle was one of most inspiring and moving encounters for me in the last past years.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009 at 19:21 and is filed under Corporate Social Responsibility, Features, Human Resources, Leadership, Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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  1. Heinz Landau Heinz Landau says:

    Dear Stephan,

    Great article!

    It reminded me of a quotation from Jim Rohn, the American “Business Philosopher” and “Personal Development Guru” who just turned 79 years old last week:

    “The major reason for setting a goal is for what it makes of you to accomplish it. What it makes of you will always be the far greater value than what you get.”

    Take care,