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RICHARDSON: Leading from the top, middle, and back

RICHARDSON: Leading from the top, middle, and back

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Lynne Richardson—College of Business & Industry Dean

IN 2000, I attended a conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. One of the highlights of the conference—and of any conference I have ever attended—was the opportunity to climb a mountain. We climbed Camelback Mountain.

Before climbing the mountain, however, we had a presentation from an experienced mountain climber and speaker who was involved in leading excursions to Mount Everest with Executive Master of Business Administration students at a high-profile institution. While they didn’t scale the summit, they did challenge the mountain.

Our speaker used mountain climbing as a metaphor for leadership and teamwork. He inspired us to see the commonalities.

After he gave us instructions for our afternoon climbing adventure, we grabbed a quick lunch, changed into our climbing attire, and headed for the mountain.

Prior to arrival at the conference, those who wished to climb had registered for the event. Those climbing had been put in groups of six or seven. Each group included men and women. One person had been identified as a point person in each group. That person was given instructions on what the group was to do as they climbed. There really was only one rule for the team members: everyone had to stay with their team, no matter what.

Our groups gathered at the base of the mountain. We were given staggered start times, about five minutes apart. My group had one of the earlier start times and I was the point person.

It became apparent fairly quickly that staying together was going to test our team. There were five men and two women. Two of the men were runners and, had we not adhered to the “must stay together” rule, they would have left the rest of us behind quickly. There were times when there was a rock face to ascend, with handrails embedded in the rock. We had to pull ourselves up the mountain, hand over hand, using the railing. Yours truly did not have the upper body strength to do this easily, nor did the other woman and one of the men. So we were pushed from behind by some of the others.

As the point person, I was to ensure that we stopped at certain intervals to rest. My job was to remind people to drink water. I had also been tasked with asking different team members to lead the group during each segment. Each person was given a different direction to follow when leading. For example, three teammates were told to lead from the front of the group, the middle of the group, and the back of the group. They couldn’t tell the rest of the team what their instructions were until we reached the summit.

The climb was physically challenging for five of the seven members of our team. It’s a 3-mile hike that is considered difficult. It takes 2 1/2 hours to complete. Most of us had no real idea what we’d signed up for.

When we reached the summit, we collapsed and rested. We had been passed on the climb by several other teams. They were at the top when we arrived, and a couple of them were preparing to descend.

We did a recap of our climb. Regarding leading from the front, middle and back, we determined that leading from the middle was most effective. The person who led from the front had a tendency to forget to look back and the distance between him and the rest of us widened. We had to remind him not to leave us behind.

The person who led from the back felt like he was just keeping people in front of him and, as he wasn’t one of our best climbers, felt like he was falling behind. Leading from the middle, however, allowed the person to see the group ahead, but also keep an eye on the slower climbers. He could corral the fast folks, but encourage and supply needed assistance to the slower ones.

Climbing Camelback was an adventure I will likely never repeat, but am thankful I had the opportunity, especially within the leadership framework. How can you use the lessons we learned in your workplace?

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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