The “Light and Fast” Approach to Leadership

hollingworth blogBy: Patrick Hollingworth

You might have seen it before at a business conference or perhaps a leadership offsite meeting. The “motivational” speaker who has climbed a mountain or two and thinks that their success is relevant to yours. That speaker might have even been me.

The speaker is there to tell you inspirational stories about the difficulties that they overcame to reach the summit and make it back down alive. Despite the worlds of business and mountaineering sharing a number of parallels (decision making, managing risk, collaboration and adaptation to change to name a few), they have never been meaningfully explored in the business context.

While inspiration is important, it is not enough. Superficial messages and shallow lessons are no longer relevant in today’s business landscape. To understand why the business landscape has become shrouded so much uncertainty and complexity it is important for all of us to understand how the world is changing. Beyond the buzzword vernacular of disruption, agility, and restructuring, which has been driven by the increased interaction and connectivity of people across the globe via massive technological improvements.

Although some will claim otherwise, no one has ever experienced the combined volume and speed of change which we are now starting to experience. For example, at the start of the millennium, 360 million people had access to the internet. By 2020, that number is predicted to reach 5 billion. Of these people, it is estimated that 3 billion will have access to a smartphone. The majority of these 3 billion people are hungry to attain typical western standards of living and security that they do not currently possess and they are prepared to work hard to achieve it. Technology will be the great enabler for them, giving them unprecedented access to global markets for employment, enterprise, and commerce.

The digital and technological revolutions have hardly begun and they are completely rewriting the way that our businesses function. This rapid growth of technology and increased global connectivity is what is creating the uncertainty and complexity in today’s business world. Make no mistake – these things won’t be going away anytime soon.

Back to the original point of the story, there is a remarkable parallel between the way that mountaineers climb mountains and the way that most organizations function. It’s called expedition style. It is a style which has had its day and is likely to provide diminishing returns in an increasingly uncertain and complex world.

Expedition style has its roots in the Himalayas. The inherent difficulties associated with incredibly low levels of oxygen and the extreme cold make it nearly impossible for climbers to stay alive up there. To mitigate these difficulties and reduce the downside risk, expedition style is an approach which uses considerable equipment and manpower to overcome the difficulties of the mountain. In many regards, it’s actually about manipulating and controlling the external environment so that it meets the climbers’ limited capabilities.

Much of the equipment used in expedition style ascents is fixed infrastructure – things like ladders, ropes, and stocked camps, which are left on the mountain for the duration of the climb. If you are the team who put the infrastructure in place, you might even charge others to use it.

Expedition style also significantly relies upon manpower – and lots of it. Typical Everest expeditions include an expedition leader, 3-4 western guides, several trainee guides, up to 40 climbers, and at least that many Sherpas. Climbing expedition style can be a quite powerful way to climb a mountain, but it is not very aesthetic (think long lines of climbers and crowded summits). It is also very expensive, very inefficient, and not quickly adaptable to changing circumstances such as storms and avalanches. Furthermore, while expedition style is relatively resilient in stable circumstances, success tends to unravel when the unexpected occurs.

Expedition style is the method employed by many organizations today. Reliance upon fixed infrastructure is seen as advantageous because it enables organizations to dominate their marketplace. A hierarchical structure featuring centralized, top down leadership is considered best for operational efficiency. But just like on the mountain, while organizations operating in this way are successful during times of stability and predictability, they have struggled during this recent shift to uncertainty. Having tried to control their own surroundings to match their own capabilities and levels of risk tolerance, expedition style organizations are suffering from chronic inefficiency and volatility, slow response in times of change, and a tendency to provide diminishing returns when unexpected events occur.

So if we have a problem, what’s the solution?

We can look again to the mountain environment, but this time to a smaller group of mountaineers who, for the most part, are developing their approach out of the limelight and away from the mainstream. The approach is called alpine style, though it is known by its practitioners as light and fast. Practiced by a relatively small subset of highly qualified mountaineers called alpinists, the solution to the inefficiency, high cost, and slow response time of expedition style is to move through the mountain environment carrying as little equipment as possible – only the bare essentials needed for the climb.

By restricting their reliance upon equipment, two things happen for alpinists. First, they are much lighter and therefore faster and more able to respond to sudden change. Second, the alpinist is considerably more self-reliant than the expedition climber. Rather than depending on infrastructure to help them reach their goals, alpinists only have themselves and a small amount of equipment to rely upon. The more an alpinist climbs, the better they become at climbing alpine style. It is a virtuous, rather than vicious cycle.

When climbing with a small team, there is no structural hierarchy or central leader, and there is shared decision making responsibility. Rather than a hierarchical, linear structure, alpinist teams operate as networks, assembling and dissembling as conditions necessitate. Each alpinist brings a skillset that complements that of fellow team members. In addition, each alpine style team can operate autonomously and do not require guidance from a central leader or decision-maker. The end result is a staggeringly fast response rate to rapidly changing external circumstances.

There are 12 elements that comprise an alpinist, an alpine-style team, and an alpine-style organization. Of these 12, three relate specifically to individual and cultural character traits. For the purpose of this article, it is most appropriate that we focus on these three traits.

The first element relates to your mindset. Psychologists refer to a spectrum of mindset, with fixed being at one end of the spectrum and growth at the other. The person or team or organizational culture with a fixed mindset believes it is already all that it can be, with no further room for improvement. They tend to rely on past performance as a predictor of their future success and are hence incredibly invested in the retention and preservation of the status quo. They abhor change.

On the other hand, alpinists have a growth mindset, and see life as an infinite game. They move with the changing boundaries and rules of the changing game. They embrace change, because they know that when you strip the certainty out of life, that’s when things become interesting.

The second element relates to your attitude towards learning. Just like your mindset, your beliefs around education can either be fixed or open. We’ve all passed through a linear traditional education system that is very much fixed on an endpoint (for example, graduation). But in this rapidly changing world, the days of education being played as a finite game are over. The alpinist is always learning. The alpinist knows that the day they stop learning is the day they die. The same applies for organizations.

The third element relates to the way in which you conduct yourself. As we all know, the days of the alpha leader are over, but it’s remarkable how prevalent they still are. Much like the person or organization with a fixed mindset, the typical alpha is backward rather than forward looking; but success in yesterday’s world does not equate to success in tomorrow’s. The alpha fights to retain control in a world that is inherently uncontrollable. The alpha is afraid to show vulnerability, but it is in showing one’s vulnerability that true strength lies. The alpinist is not an alpha.

While it might be entirely suitable for an alpine-style team in the mountains to quickly form and then just as quickly disband, that probably won’t work so well in an organizational context. And that’s OK. The alpine-style organization is not specifically beholden to rules and regulations — it always takes a strengths-based approach, using what works best and discarding what doesn’t. Indeed, alpine style itself is as much a philosophy as it is a methodology.

We are increasingly being told that the solution to today’s volatile and changing business landscape is to be agile and innovative. But few can actually articulate what that looks like in an organizational or business context. That’s what alpine style, or light and fast, provides – an articulation of agility and innovation. It provides us with an overarching ethos and a tangible method for developing employees and structuring organizations to be able to adapt to and quickly move through change. It is the new way for businesses to deal with the increasingly uncertain and complex business landscape.

About the Author:

Patrick Hollingworth is a Leadership Speaker and Senior Leadership Consultant with Executive Development Associates. He works with clients across the globe to help their leaders and teams get comfortable getting uncomfortable in an organizational landscape which is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous by the day. He is the author of a book entitled The Light & Fast Organization: A New Way of Dealing with Uncertainty, published in 2016.

He is an everyday family man from Sydney, Australia. He’s also a high-altitude mountaineer, and a leadership, teamwork and safety expert. He worked towards his own personal goal of an unguided ascent of Mount Everest for ten years, and in 2010, after a lot of hard work and perseverance, he achieved it.