When I was at University I really got into rock climbing. I loved the sport — being outside, hanging with friends, solving problems on the rock, learning technical sequences. I didn’t realize that I was also learning a lot about leadership. Here, in no particular order, are what I learned about leading from rock climbing.
There can only be one leader While climbing takes a team of two, only of member of that team can lead at any one time. While the leader forging a safe path, the follower is providing a solid and attentive belay. Should the leader make a mistake and fall, this belay will keep the leader safe. If both team members tried to lead (sometimes called simulclimbing) then a single mistake from either will bring the entire team crashing to the ground.
Leading is lonely Between pitches or when on the ground, it is great fun to socialize. But the actual act of leading is solitary. There is no banter with other climbers. The leader has 100% focus on the task at hand — safely scaling the rock wall before her. At these times it is just you. No one else can help. Faced with a scary section of terrain — the only way down is up — I have never felt more alone.
Communication is key The only times I have been seriously hurt climbing is when I did not communicate properly with my belayer. My worst fall (35 meters) happened because I didn’t communicate to my belayer that I was going to be coming off the rock. When I paused, knowing that I was about to fall, she thought I was going to clip into a bolt. She gave be two big armfuls of slack just as I let go. Other times, I will finish a pitch out of eyesight and ear shot of my belayer. We would need to work out rope signals ahead of time for key instructions like “slack” and “I’m safe”.
Lead to your Strengths When doing a multi-pitch climb, I would often pair up with another person who complemented by strengths. I really liked thin face climbing and my usual climbing partner excelled and long run-out slab pitches. We would plan the leading responsibilities ahead so that he got the scary slab pitches and I got the thin face pitches. Neither of us felt compelled to lead every pitch. Success rested on knowing when you should lead and when you should follow.
Those have been my big take aways. I’ve found that remembering these lessons from rock climbing have helped me more effectively lead in my startups.