September 18, 2011

My Failure on the Wall

Viet Thanh during her valiant struggle.

Some of the best lessons I’ve learned about leadership have come from my failures.

Here’s a story of a big one.

One brilliant, sunny day a few years ago the directors in our team went rock climbing on a team-building activity.  The climbing wall was about 20 meters (60 feet) high, an imposing dull grey edifice studded with multi-colored climbing grips.  We craned our necks looking up at the thing as the staff briefed us.

The wall stared back at us impassively with a silent taunt: “Do you have what it takes to get to the top?”

Two people at a time could climb.  A few people scrambled to the top as the rest of us shouted our encouragement.  We cheered wildly when they conquered the silent grey giant and rappelled back down with triumphant grins.

Then it was my turn.

I was pumped with determination and adrenaline.  My hands were clammy with sweat.  My heart beat like a drum.  I began pulling myself up the wall.

I got to the first ledge about 4 meters up.  “Hey, this isn’t so bad!” I thought.  “I can do this!”

About 12 meters up I made a mistake and looked down.   My head swam.  My mind raced.

“What if the rope breaks?  That concrete down there looks pretty hard.”

I pushed the fear back to the periphery of my mind like a campfire pushes back the night.  My arms and legs had become leaden weights.  My fists refused to clench.  I continued climbing.

15 meters.

The encouraging shouts of my colleagues below spurred me on.

18 meters.

The top was within my grasp.  I summoned a final surge of will.

Me (left) and Viet Thanh (right). I’m almost there but have lost sight of my most important mission.

The top!  The grey giant lay broken and shattered beneath me!

I rappelled back down through the soft air, flush with victory.  Smiles and high-fives all around.

Then I turned and looked back at the wall.  My heart sank.  I realized that my victory was hollow in its selfishness and vanity.

For halfway up the wall, exhausted but still struggling valiantly, was one of my team members, Viet Thanh.

She had started at least twenty minutes before me.  I had zipped by her and didn’t even notice, focused as I was on my own goal.

We tried the best we could to support Viet Thanh from the ground.  But it was too late.  She was discouraged and had no strength left.  Five minutes later she gave up and was lowered to the ground.  Her face grimaced with exhaustion and disappointment.

Viet Thanh unhooked her harness.  Her accusing gaze fell upon me.

“You didn’t support me, Chris.”  It was a statement of fact.

My face reddened.  A burning sense of shame welled up inside.  A lump appeared in my throat.

“She’s right,” I thought.  “I was so focused on myself that I didn’t support her.”

I’ll never forget the lesson I learned that day.

A leader never focuses on himself to the exclusion of his colleagues.  A leader never forgets that his primary responsibility is helping others to achieve their goals.  And a leader never, ever abandons his colleagues.  A leader stays with them until the end.  He encourages, coaxes, fights and suffers side by side with them until the job is done.

I’ll never make that mistake again.

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