Learning to Lead

Taking the lead, starting your startup, is a scary step. How can you prepare? How can you learn what to do? I have found many parallels between learning to lead in rock climbing and learning to lead as an entrepreneur.

Rock climbing is a two person sport. To accomplish any ascent, from climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan to hauling your ass to the top of the local crag, requires a leader and a follower. The lesder goes first, placing gear every few meters that will prevent a long fall as they make their way to the top. The follower goes second and removes the gear.

In climbing, you cannot learn to lead by reading a book. You must get out there and spend time following an experienced climber. When I was learning to lead, I partnered with a more experienced climber. Our unspoken agreement was that he would teach me to lead, and I would follow him up every god forsaken choss pile he wanted to climb.

Every weekend he would have a new conquest picked out. Some would be simple climbs on Mt. Lemmon. The most extreme were back country scarefests in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. I dutifully followed along. Many times I would have to endure banging 15 minutes on a stuck nut or cam with my cleaning tool to finally get it out. Other times I would encounter a piece of gear that fell out just as I touched it.

At the belay station we would talk about the gear I had collected. The best placements always had a good stance, allowing the leader plenty of time to set the gear just right. Sometimes a placement was meant to protect a single move, after which rope drag would pull the piece out. The worst placements were “psych” gear — pieces placed in a hurry just to give the psychological encouragement to continue on.

I always had to re-rack the extracted gear. This taught be rack management and some strategic thinking. If the next pitch had a thin crack, then we would put the nuts in an easy to reach place. If there was a horizontal crack that needed a #3 cam, we would make sure that cam was handy.

Slowly, through this process, I learned the routine aspects of leading — the mechanics of setting protection, of racking and managing gear, how often to place gear. I also learned the ins and outs of judgement calls. Do you tire yourself out getting a placement just right or move on? Do you skip a placement and run it out because you are on confident terrain?

Then one day my partner handed me the rack and said “you lead.” The climb was Monkey Business, one that we often did as a warm up. Even though I had followed on this particular climb many times, and knew it well, the first time leading was a different experience. I was scared and excited. It took me a long time to get to the top, but I did it. It was my first lead.

Like rock climbing, being an entrepreneur is risky. I don’t think entrepreneurship can be learned from a book or taught in a class room. You just need to get out and do it to learn it. Like in rock climbing, having an experienced mentor from whom you can learn the ropes is essential. This is one of the great benefits for first time entrepreneurs working with accelerators and incubators (although it does come with a cost — see Accelerators are Bad for Founders).

But the best way to learn is by joining a startup with an experienced founder. Spend 1-2 years working closely with them, watching what they do and why they do it. Ask questions. Sure you will be taken on their journey (as opposed to yours) but along they way you will learn and gain invaluable experience.

When the time is right, you will know it is your turn to lead. It may be your mentor telling you it’s time. Encouraging you to start that idea you’ve been talking about. Or it may be your own inner voice. But you WILL know and be better prepared for the time spent learning under others.

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