In this second post on my WMH adventure in Poland, I want to share my thoughts on how a group of 15 people managed to climb the peak of a snowy mountain in shorts. In my first post I reflected on how our trainers empowered us; here, I reflect on how we worked as a team to make the climb possible.

Our trainers played a surprisingly small role when it came to the actual climb. Yet, they made all the difference in preparing us for it. They empowered us to work together, overcome obstacles and achieve our goal.

  • Taking responsibility for oneself first and then for helping others. We made sure we put spikes underneath our shoes first before helping others with it and once on the mountain we put on our clothes first and only then helped others with it. It's a similar logic to how safety announcements on a plane ask you to put on the oxygen mask first before helping others with it. It's no use sacrificing yourself, if it means that you cannot contribute to the journey or even become a burden on the team.

  • We depended on each other, and had a strong sense of that. If someone needed a break, we all took a break (in the cold) to remain together. The slowest of us set the pace for all of us. We were as strong as the weakest link. The goal was to reach the top together, not to be at the top the fastest way possible. Sticking together made us stronger considering the cold, which turned harsher the closer we came to the top. We shared chocolate and tea, and huddled together like penguins during breaks – a huddle of one or two does not help much. We were still organized in smaller teams of four: much of the way we would walk together and support each other; but this closer collaboration in the small teams did not hinder us from helping people from other teams.

  • We were in the sweet spot were the magnitude of the challenge was matched by our competence and confidence. This forged us together. I believe most of us had this sense of how ridiculously hard the challenge seemed, how much we all needed to go beyond what we were comfortable with. But we also had a taste of the challenge a few days before when we did a practice walk, and we knew we could make it. We had the skills dealing with the cold, and having applied them before gave us confidence. And yet climbing the mountain remained a stretch.

  • We all were role-models to each other. Turning around and seeing how the team marched forward with iced snow gathering on the left side of people's faces, arms, legs inspired me to move forward as well and, in turn, perhaps it inspired the person before me. Seeing others help people put on their spikes, even though their fingers were stiff from the cold, inspired me to do the same.

  • We had a shared purpose but attached a personal meaning to it. We all wanted to climb the mountain, grow from it mentally, help each other and have a good time. We all shared that. But what this meant was probably different from one person to the next, filtered through one's life experiences, fears, limiting beliefs, hopes. I believe we were all prepared for the climb, not just having the right mindset and skillset for the climb, or knowing the overall goal but also having a personal reason why to do it, what the climb meant for each of us personally.

This quote really hit it home for me:

"It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves." Sir Edmund Hillary

We did much more that day than climb a mountain in shorts. Individually and as a team, the challenge was not so much the task before us. The challenge was how to adopt the right skill-set and mindset - and doing so as part of a team.

Inspired by what I learnt about empowerment climbing mount Snezka in shorts, I went back to two of my favourite books about leadership. Without being fully aware of it before, I am realizing that my favourite leadership books deal with leadership under extreme conditions: long-distance yacht racing in Team Spirit and combat in Extreme Ownership. Both accounts describe a leadership style that empowers others.

Team Spirit by Brendan Hall

Team Spirit is the story of Brendan Hall who embarks on his first round-the-world race as a skipper and manages to forge a group of amateur sailors into a winning team. Although hardly comparable to the tough decisions of a Navy SEAL commander in combat (the leadership context of Extreme Ownership), the challenge of racing a boat with amateurs, strangers living on what must have felt like a sardine can, under the extreme conditions of hurricane-type storms on high seas thousands of miles away from land, with the skipper thinking to himself ‘People die in conditions like this’ … well, that sounds extreme to me and is probably a solid litmus test for how to lead people.

Three insights on an empowering leadership style from Team Spirit:

  • Leadership is about people management first and foremost, for a skipper this means “20 per cent sailing skills and 80 per cent people-management skills” (p. 12). The classical way to get to a leadership position, whether in a company or politics, is through promotion which acknowledges past performance. A typical pitfall for newly promoted leaders is to not shift focus away from performing the technical/functional job and towards people management. Brendan Hall describes how all successful skippers he interviewed in preparation conveyed the importance of people management to him. He also describes how he learnt what this meant the hard way. Sometimes he would slip into the job of a sailor or navigator, all the while needing to take care of their racing strategy and managing the crew. More often than not, this left him overwhelmed and the team ineffective. The solution: focus on people management, let the team get the job done.

  • Remaining self-aware of your mood & behaviour. Because it rubs off on your team: “The shadow you cast is great and you need to be self-aware of your moods and how they affect others” (p. 83). Do you lash out when stressed, irritable when impatient? Everyone who has been on the receiving side of it (I have) knows how much it can demoralize people. This is true for the leader bringing down his team, but also individual team members bringing down everyone else. Hall quotes Churchill: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” How aware are you in critical situations?

  • Giving complete responsibility to the team. As a skipper, Hall delegated tasks gradually. But he also knew he had to make sure the team was able to get the job done without him, in the not so unlikely case that something would happen to him:

“I trusted my crew, entirely. This trust was not given easily – they earned it over the previous six months and had proved to me time and again how capable, persistent and resourceful they were. […] As a leader, reaching this point can be a long struggle, but it is my firm belief that reaching a stage where the team working for you can function without your presence is something all leaders should strive for." (p. 204)

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

In Extreme Ownership Jocko Willink and Leif Babin distil what they learnt about leadership in combat and show how the principles apply beyond the military:

  • Ineffective team? Ineffective leader! While leadership books and consulting tend to define characteristics of the effective leader, Willink & Babin stress from the outset that “without a team […] there can be no leadership. The only meaningful measure for a leader is whether the team succeeds or fails.” (p. 8) If the team succeeds, the leader is effective; if, however, the team fails, then the leader is ineffective. This is where leaders get it wrong, if they make up excuses (I certainly have), blaming anything from underperforming team members to insufficient resources to get the job done. This is where the radical idea of the book comes in:

  • Extreme ownership. A leader takes ownership for everything that happens, more specifically, for everything that goes wrong.

  • The mindset brings continuous improvement. A team member is not up to the task? Train, coach, help them get there; if they don’t and put the mission at risk, replace them. Your resources are insufficient? Be creative, find out what is possible, what is not, confront your superior with it. Your team member made a mistake? Take ownership – should you have communicated the job more clearly, trained the individual better, allocated the task to someone else? Figure out together what can be done to be better the next time.

  • The mindset builds trust & loyalty. You stand up for your team, stand in front of them, if necessary. You take ownership for when things go wrong and give credit to the team when successful.

  • The mindset – and the attitude and behaviour flowing from it – sets an example, and, thereby encourages junior leaders to emulate and take ownership: “Extreme Ownership – good leadership – is contagious.” (p. 59) This is when the magic happens: an empowered team taking full ownership, not finding excuses but finding solutions.

  • ‘Decentralised command’. This is the flip side of taking extreme ownership: to taking full responsibility for the performance of the team without performing the job. It requires clear communication of not only what to do but also the why behind it, being positioned not too closely to the action to get dragged into it, but also not too far away to not know what is going on. It empowers the team by leaving execution and potential adaptations to the team. Together with the mindset of extreme ownership, the team will not just do the job but strive to continuously become better.

And so I am left asking myself: if a leadership style that empowers others to make their own decisions and take ownership is successful even in hostile environments, what makes us think we cannot lead like this under more benign circumstances?

Aktualisiert: Feb 20

Simon Sinek popularized asking ‘why’ to uncover – or create – the driving force behind any endeavour, whether related to business, a political or societal cause, personal or other: why we do something is the foundation for the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of what we do.

Ask why!

If we have clarity about why we do something, we are also in a position to communicate much more powerfully. Sinek urges us to flip around the way we communicate: not by going on about ‘what’ we do (e.g. ‘we demonstrate against environmental policies’), or ‘how’ we do it (e.g. ‘we bring together a wide, inclusive coalition for non-violent protest’), but by starting with ‘why’ (e.g. ‘we believe it's the responsibility of every human being to protect this planet’).

In my own consulting work I used the concept to help develop a common vision of a newly merged department. It works. It's a simple concept that gets to the gist of things in a structured way.

A leader who can clarify the 'why' also empowers a team by leaving it to them to figure out the 'what' and 'how' of things to be done to achieve a goal, or adapt a plan without needing to rely on the leader to spell out everything.

Don't ask 'why'!

But using the concept is not the same thing as walking around asking people ‘why’.

Asking someone ‘why’ can challenge and put them in a defensive mode – ‘why did you do that?’ is probably the question we heard most often from our parents as a kid when we did something naughty. It breaks rapport rather than building it. It can be powerful precisely because it is so incisive: calling out bullshit and shaking things up. But most relationships are probably not strong enough for a ‘why’ to be productive.

A ‘why’ also elicits a surface-level, socially acceptable story, a justification rather than an open-minded, curious search for a meaningful, perhaps more truthful, answer.

It's for these reasons that asking ‘why’ is usually avoided in coaching, where a strong relationship between the coach and coachee is essential and where the goal is to go beyond surface-level chit chat, stories we tell others and ourselves and move towards richer elaboration of one's thoughts & feelings. These are the same reasons hostage negotiators avoid ‘why’: to build and maintain a strong relationship while at the same time figuring out what is going on.

A ‘why’ question can easily be reformulated as an open ‘what’ and ‘how’ question and still get at the same thing:

  • ‘Why do you do this?’ becomes ‘How does doing this help?’

  • ‘Why is this important to you?’ becomes ‘What makes this important to you?’

  • Or simply ‘tell me about…’

So, start with why, but don't start with why: starting with why we do something is a powerful way to convey our endeavour, but the word ‘why’ itself is often not the best word to use in a conversation.

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