Heartstyles blog

What Do We Do Next?


Andrew St. George – Heartstyles Accredited Associate

Everywhere we put ourselves in dangerous situations there are leadership lessons to be learned.  Mountaineering and military operations are some of the best places to find a combination of experience and reflection.

In 1998 I met two men who had vital intelligence from their own front line.  I was not expecting to meet either.  The first was Achille Compagnoni, first up K2.  We met by chance and chatted in his small hotel in Cervinia, under the Matterhorn. He’d fallen out with Walter Bonatti, the greatest Italian climber of his generation, over events on K2 that July 1954 – they never resolved their differences.  Things had gone wrong, somewhere on the high ice-fields, and even two generations later, were never put right.  The leadership lesson in mountaineering is always “come home safe, and come home friends.”  That had not worked for Compagnoni and Bonatti.

The other man was Ed Hillary, first up Everest in 1953.  I met him at the Hay on Wye Festival where we were both speaking.  Thinking of Compagnoni, I asked him what a good expedition leader does when things go wrong.  He answered obliquely: if you wanted fast and light, you needed an explorer like Amundsen; for heavy scientific discovery, Scott; but if you were in real trouble in a difficult place you’d need Captain Ernest Shackleton.

Why Shackleton?  Because he understood his people and was prepared to do the right thing.  That’s a good motto for any leader – know your people and do the right thing.

Shackleton certainly did that.  In October 1915 with his ship in the grip of the ice floe, facing an epic journey over land and sea, he and his crew emptied their pockets and tipped all non-essentials – watches, coins, glass photographic plates – into the freezing waters. Shackleton took the wardroom banjo with him – moral medicine, he called it. He knew what his men didn’t. He knew that the uplifting effects of music were key to survival in the dismal Antarctic wastes. That is what great leaders do. 

Great leaders are not seeking to derive identity or significance from things around them; their behaviors are characterized by humility and authenticity, and by the need and the pleasure of growing the capacities of those around them.  This, in Heartstyles terms, demonstrates effective Above the Line behavior.

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