A high-rolling professional CEO for blue-chip investment companies, Herta von Stiegel has led two expeditions to Mount Kilimanjaro, where she really learned her lessons in leadership. She tells E&T about her new book.
'Leading an expedition up Kilimanjaro is not an ordinary feat,' says Herta von Stiegel, a CEO and business guru who might be more at home on BBC Radio 4 or commenting in the pages of the Financial Times, of her new book. While 'The Mountain Within' records her recent endeavours on Africa's highest mountain, it is also an exercise in extrapolating leadership lessons for managers operating in an uncertain environment.
Humans are fascinated by mountains. Despite their very real presence – often dangerous, hostile and threatening – perhaps their true significance is in their value as a symbol for achievement. They seem to have been adopted by business leaders, with blue-chip companies often using successful mountaineers as their motivational gurus. I ask von Stiegel why this should be. 'The view is better from the top. There is a deep feeling of accomplishment when you reach the summit. But the mountains need to be treated with respect. We are the guests.'
Von Stiegel has been a guest of Kilimanjaro on two separate occasions and her respect for the mountain was earned the hard way, having failed in her first assault. 'Writing my book was a matter of telling the story of two expeditions: a failed one and a successful one.' The point was to then draw on her experience as a business leader to write lessons from the mountain. 'Last, but certainly not least, there are the conversations with some amazing leaders. That was an expedition too: as I met leaders in London, Gaborone, New York.'
What can we learn from a mountain that we can't learn in business school? Unsurprisingly her conclusions are focused on old school values such as determination, strength of character, seeing things through. The lessons are 'ruthlessly prepare, use failure as a stepping stone for success, hang on to your vision, and know when it's time to come down from the mountain'.
Of mountains and managers
Although climbing the mountain was the creative stimulus behind her book, this isn't yet another expedition diary written by a grizzled explorer in an attempt to claw back expenses. It is a business book, where episodes of outdoor adventure are no more than a third of the overall word count. According to von Stiegel, the impetus to write 'The Mountain Within' came from 'being greatly affected by the financial crisis that became so clearly evident in September of 2008. I felt we needed a new brand of leaders who are concerned about the bottom line, but are also concerned about the means by which to achieve it. In other words, leading by relating to each other humanely and with a view to having a positive impact and generating sustainable growth'.
'The Mountain Within' is divided into 16 chapters with neatly ambiguous headings that could refer to either the adventure or business success. We learn about 'Expectations and reality', 'Facing the Unforeseen' and 'Reaching the Summit.'
Each chapter is in three parts: first an incident from the expedition, second the author's interpretation of this, while the third is a discussion with a business or political leader.
In the expectations section, the afterword is given by Baroness Scotland, the UK's first black Attorney General and the only woman to have served in this function since the position was created in 1315. Baroness Scotland says that, more than anything – more than the focus, the tireless work, and ignoring the naysayers – the key to her success was preparation. 'She believes,' writes von Stiegel 'that it is a key ingredient for all executives seeking serious positions of leadership.'
Live to fight another day
One of the great models for leadership in the 20th Century is not a business leader, but the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. 'The Boss', as he was known, is the standard by which we measure leadership skills. Closer inspection shows that despite many successes, his legacy is one of coping with failure, mounting rearguard actions, leading emergency rescues. He may have 'never lost a man', but, unlike Scott, he never got to the South Pole, turning back 97 miles short. If Scott had thought like Shackleton, he too would have lived to fight another day, and this is probably the most important point of von Stiegel's book.
The author is first to admit that her successful ascent of Kilimanjaro was her second attempt. She also admits that when she reached the summit second time around she was accompanied by only just over half of her original squad. But behind the facts there are human tales of broken dreams, survivor guilt and conflicted priorities, as one party continues up the mountain and the other trudges home. These are the experiences that have informed von Stiegel's commercial life. 'The more you fail, the more you are trying. Don't give up. Give failure its proper role in your mind: a place to dwell briefly, learn and reflect, and move on from quickly.'
I ask von Stiegel if there's a sense in which the metaphor of leader-as-explorer may have been over-extended. 'I did not think of myself as an explorer, but if exploration means trying new things and pushing back frontiers, then yes.' She explains that she's always on the look-out for 'new ways of doing something, enter new markets, look for new opportunities'. '
'The Mountain Within' is an impressive parable of success against the odds and there is a common theme that emerges for all who wish to follow in her footsteps: 'Great leaders have a holistic definition of success, they are resilient, know how to deal with failure and don't stay too long at the top. If you make it to the summit by yourself, you have only a fraction of the satisfaction that you could have if you make it with people you love and whose company you enjoy.' *
'The Mountain Within' by Herta von Stiegel is published by McGraw Hill, £16.99