Antarctic - snow-covered mountains

Management success with a mountaineering twist

Research shows that 80 per cent of leaders and managers are engaged in a battle 'not to lose'. We talk to an author whose new book discusses the 20 per cent who actively seek to win.

In the world of high-altitude climbing, most mountaineering teams gunning to send an assault party to the summit set up a safe camp as near as possible to the dangerous bit of the ascent. On Mount Everest, for example, the Nepalese 'Base Camp' is located at a height of around 17,500ft: uncomfortable enough for most of us, but for those whose ambition is to get to the Roof of the World the strategy makes sense. This is where teams place communications, operations, logistics and other life-support mechanisms needed to support the summiteers.

As a metaphor, the notion of a secure base translates well to the challenges of running a business, and the idea of secure base leadership applies equally to reaching the pinnacle of success in either mountaineering or the corporate world. The managing director of either camp is effectively the 'secure base leader' – a person who will have characteristics that inform success and create an environment that maximises the opportunities for safe execution, while providing the stability upon which the enterprise depends.

Nothing new here: the motivational speaking circuit is full of mountaineers urging managers on with their inspirational tales of derring-do. But George Kohlrieser's new book 'Care to Dare' offers an innovative and thought-provoking interpretation of a well-established theme.

"What's new," says Kohlrieser, "is the linking of neuroscience and the practice of leadership." How the brain functions biologically is something that most management books tend to leave out. The other gap is "research and greater insight on how a leader establishes trust". What this means is that the author has identified nine characteristics "that show performance management is not about being soft, but being trusted and having leaders who care enough to dare their followers, their teams". For the record, these nine attributes are: staying calm, accepting the individual, recognising potential, listening and questioning, delivering a powerful message, focusing on the positive, encouraging risk taking, inspiring through 'intrinsic motivation' and signaling accessibility.

Kohlrieser maintains that it is this structured approach that underlies sustained high performance. The good news is that it is learnable. The bad news is that most leaders have never learned the skills.

Leading in times of change requires the type of behaviour that can keep people engaged, says Kohlrieser. Secure Base Leadership encourages innovation, creativity, curiosity, high performance and teamwork based on a solid foundation of trust. Having a secure base is a precursor to success, while its loss or absence will be a forerunner of failure. "The role of secure base leader is to create a foundation for safety so that people feel confident to explore and take risks in competitive marketplaces."

The idea that corporations need to be based on values such as security and trust is reassuringly old-fashioned. But there is often a gap between what we know to be an appropriate long-term management strategy and what happens when we are confronted by stress-inducing pressure to perform short-term. "The brain needs a sense of safety in order to activate curiosity, creativity and innovation."

This is the paradox of caring: do you care enough for an individual to encourage them to push their limits? "Most work environments create a sense of defensiveness that limits how creative and risk-taking people will be." Playing to win requires risk-taking, and to do so with confidence means that you need a supportive structure. Daring followers to leave their comfort zone, says Kohlrieser, enables them to realise their potential. "The nature of the human brain means that people perform at their best when inspired."

Hostage to creativity

Kohlrieser say that feeling stressed is similar to being a hostage, a scenario the author knows a thing or two about. Quite apart from being a clinical psychologist and a professor of leadership and organisational behaviour, he is also a hostage negotiator, having worked with police, military and humanitarian organisations. In the course of his work he has been held hostage four times and in each case his Secure Base Leadership model has helped him get out of trouble.

The big question is how these experiences translate into lessons for a modern CEO. "Hostage negotiators are effective in influencing a change of mindset. This is done by creating a relationship, even an emotional bond, with someone they don't necessarily like, engaging with them, and through effective dialogue getting closer to understanding the motivation of the other person. They invite cooperation towards a common goal. Good leaders can do this."

And while this seems to be a useful portfolio skill for anyone, we seem to have drifted a little from the mountaineering metaphor. Maybe they're two sides of the same coin, because it all comes down to trust. In mountaineering there is a technique called belaying, where a climber who is further up the mountain acts as a fixed pulley for the rope of a climber below. "The belayed puts his life in the hands of the belayer. The employee puts his self-esteem in the hands of his boss. There are moments when we need a coach, a mentor, a great boss to inspire us to move upward. The legacy of a great leader includes how they have developed the potential of those around them."

Despite Kohlrieser's carefully executed metaphors, the cynic could be forgiven for thinking that a caring work environment is something of a utopian ideal in a world of cutbacks and redundancies. What this means to the author is that today "there is all the more reason to care to dare. Amidst all the uncertainty, people need a safe haven to be able to feel secure enough to grow beyond what they thought was initially possible. We all have to endure loss and pain as reflected by cutbacks and redundancy. However, those who remain must come together to build an environment that is safe in an unstable world". In other words, the leader is the model and inspiration for motivating people in times of adversity.

We need to "return to the personal nature of leadership and create emotional bonds that people, teams and customers need to maximise success. Be a leader who is interested, engaged and caring". 

'Care to Dare' by George Kohlrieser (with Susan Goldsworthy and Duncan Coombe) is published by Wiley, £18.99, www.wiley.co.uk

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