One of the Covid season films I’ve immensely enjoyed is a documentary called Free Solo . It documents the passion and the preparation of Alex Honnold who attempts to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, considered the Mount Everest of free solo climbing. El Capitan is a 3,000-foot climb. It doesn’t seem too tall when you compare it to Everest. But when you do it free solo – climbing an almost sheer rockface without ropes, harnesses or protective equipment, then a climb up Everest almost seems like a walk in the park.
The entire climb is in the shadow of mortality – one miss and the climber would hurtle to certain death. In a free solo climb, the climber can only rely on the strength of his own body, the calmness and focus of his mind and the fearlessness of his spirit.
Many business journeys are similar. A young manager starting off on his first assignment deep in rural India; a management trainee thrown into the deep end of a client disaster; an aspiring people manager cast right into the middle of a union conflict; a lady manager being the only woman on the premises of an office or factory. The stakes aren’t as high as in a free solo climb, but there is a similarity. We must first climb our mountains on the inside before we scale the mountain peaks on the outside
This is not just about revenue goals or global product launches or ramping up the company to eye-popping valuations. Aiming high is about a business leader choosing to take a stand for a difference - every day. Refusing to surrender to mediocrity or to the temptation of good enough. This is what creates the great adventure of a business journey. Whether that of a young entrepreneur picking himself off the dust-heap of her first failure and choosing to embrace with passion the next big idea. Or of the management trainee who volunteers for a risky assignment, but one filled with learning and the challenge of growth.
Watching Free Solo reminded me of another solo adventurer – Philippe Petit. He is most famous for his high-wire walk between the then tall-standing twin Towers in New York. That awesome achievement was captured in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire . Philippe, with half impishness and half unconscious wisdom, asks and answers: "Why?" That is the question people ask me most. Pourquoi ? Why? For what? Why do you walk on the wire? Why do you tempt fate? Why do you risk death. But, I don't think of it this way. I never even say this word, death. La mort. Yes .., I said it once, or maybe three times, just now... But watch, I will not say it again. Instead, I use the opposite word. Life. For me, to walk on the wire, this is life. C'est la vie .”
It brings back memories of Steve Jobs choosing to make not just a computing machine but a thing of beauty. Of Ratan Tata’s dream to make the one lakh rupees car for the Indian family. Of Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy starting Aravind Eye Hospitals and choosing to pursue an outrageous dream: “To give sight for all”. Of the young entrepreneurs, who through Ather Energy are giving wheels to India’s electric vehicle ambitions. They have chosen to take a stand for a possibility. They’ve decided to aim for a different peak. For them to walk the wire is life. For them excellence is not a goal, or a word in a vision statement it is the way they work and live.
Free solo climbing is a series of life and death decisions every step of the way — each choice of grip, each toe hold, each crevice selected for a finger hold means a climber could progress or perish.
Alex made his first serious attempt in late 2016 but about one hour into the climb up El Capitan, he chose to stop. A difficult decision – a camera crew was filming him for what would eventually become the Free Solo film. He’d already gone up quite a bit of the rock face, but he still chose to stop and turn back. That was a mountain on the inside he had to climb. He successfully scaled it, even though he chose to step off the mountain on the outside. He showed that he was master of the mountain and had not let it enslave him.
With a clarity of thought and humility he stopped his climb. He dealt with the disappointment in his typical stoic way. And months later, better prepared he came back for his successful climb. Planning the climb involved multiple smaller decisions – each decision for the outside mountain created inner mountains he had to conquer – building his strength, controlling his diet, spending quiet time by himself. The same is true of leadership in business – bad or good decisions on the outside-mountains can be traced back to bad or good decisions on the inside ones.
Ultimately the business journey is not just about building the greatest company or the largest team or the most innovative product. Can it build a better you? This journey inward is at the heart of the leader’s quest.
As Alex Honnold says: “The big challenge is controlling your mind, I guess. Because, you're not controlling your fear, you're sort of just trying to step outside of it.” That’s the kind of inside-mountain climbing practice that really prepares us for the outside-mountain climbs. Have we built the leadership muscles through our daily journey within, that we are now ready and able to take on the challenges we will face? From a crisis like Covid, to a change in Government regulation that threatens to upend our industry, to key team members leaving?
How we deal with each of these situations has in some way been pre-determined by the successes we have climbing the mountains within. As Ramana Maharshi put it: “ The mind, having been so long a cow accustomed to graze stealthily on other’s estates, is not easily confined to her stall.” (Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, David Godman, 1985) The journey of disciplining ourselves, of choosing growth over pleasure, focus over distraction is a difficult journey. It involves us coming face-to-face with who we truly are - what in Zen teaching is referred to as kenshō which means “seeing into our true nature.”
Our success in the business journey often depends on how well we have climbed our internal mountains. Have we been able to privately deal with our insecurities, our ego, our greed, our selfishness? Have we been able to make and keep private commitments to ourselves – getting up at a particular time, exercising daily, a reading regimen? If we have failed at climbing these mountains on the inside, we are setting ourselves up for a perilous climb up the mountains on the outside.
The real mountain is a commitment to be the best version of ourselves. A commitment to serving others in being the best version of themselves. A commitment to growing even when it is difficult.
As Philippe Petit would challenge us: “Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge.”