A mountain guide’s tips for leaders to manage risk more effectively

I eased onto my rappelling device, anxiously staring at the small piece of protection anchoring my rope to the icy slope. How had I gotten here? Ultimately a lack of proper preparation, unfamiliarity with Fall Sierra Nevada couloirs, and a sequence of events that slowly but surely forced me to commit to this heinous route had all led to this moment. My fellow guide looked about as pleased as me that we had left critical tools at home and would clearly be inching our way down until well after midnight.

Humans are terrible at assessing risk 

We are wound up to fight or flee at the slightest provocation, so forget about an analytical approach when things seem dangerous. On the flip side, if the situation doesn’t immediately seem dangerous, we turn into frogs slowly coming to a boil. We have a whole slew of heuristics that conveniently obscure reality. For example, the availability heuristic causes us to heavily consider what we have recently seen. So, if CNN hypes up a terrorist threat, we naturally think that a terrorist attack is more likely than a car accident.

The devil’s in the definitions

So what is risk anyway? Internal risks such as employee embezzlement or organizational structure collapse are caused by shoddy leadership and poor culture. We want to eliminate these, but leaders often default to constructing elaborate rule books. For a disgruntled employee these are a provocation to find a workaround. Leaders should eliminate internal risk through great leadership and intentional culture. 
External risks are also bad, but we don’t have so much control over them. Political shifts, global pandemics, and natural disasters all fall in this category. One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten from my board of advisors is to imagine all the things that could go wrong and come up with a plan to overcome anticipated challenges. It’s easy to always be stoked as a leader, but you have a responsibility to brood once in a while. 
Here is the fun type of risk, strategic. This is where leaders shine. It’s the decisions we make in order to make our vision come alive. Investing in a high risk, high reward plan can be a great idea, or it could sink your entire enterprise. Getting to the top of a mountain includes loads of risk and a high reward. So, how does a mountain guide look at strategic risk?

Make an educated assessment

When it comes to managing risk, probability and consequence are the keys. As a guide I think about these constantly. Sure, the mountain could collapse in an earthquake, but the probability is extremely low. I can accept that risk. Of course, someone could trip over a root, but they will likely stumble and catch themselves with no injury- not enough consequence to worry about. Walking under a snow-loaded slope on a high avalanche risk day? Now we are talking about bad outcomes and high likelihood – turnaround criteria on the mountain. You probably don’t like thinking about what could go wrong all day, but you need to get over it to keep your organization safe!  

The experience paradox  

When I earned my first guide certification I learned a lot of rules. If I followed the rules, risk would generally stay at an acceptable level. When I went to my next level certification, instructors laughed at the rules as an artificial scaffold. I learned how the gear truly worked and how to apply it to its limits safely. Without experience we need hard and fast rules to stay safe. With experience we can manage risk with more nuance. For leaders, a primary task is to get your team experience as fast as possible without letting them fail too badly. 

Ultimately it’s about the culture 

Clients actually do try to kill me. They forget certain steps, go where they should not, use gear wrong and all around keep me on my toes. Of course all that is my fault. If I create a culture of double-checking safety steps and communicating concerns, I can go a long way toward mitigating this risk. Leaders also have the power to create cultures that thrive in risky environments. We talk a lot about our value of excellence at Cairn Leadership. No one settles for good. We expect people to speak up with concerns. This keeps us out of hot water. Whatever culture you are building, take a second to verify that components will help prevent you from walking off an ‘Enron cliff.’ 

Tricky business

Managing risk isn’t the sexy job that inspiring leaders signed up for. As a guide I’d also rather revel in a hard-earned summit with my clients instead of brooding over all the potential risks. In both cases, identifying risk, making good decisions, and creating a culture of competence and openness to confronting risk makes teams safer and makes summiting your mountains more likely.

Written by: Knight Campbell, GUAA Career Coaching Partner

Knight coaches leaders to live their best lives and make a profound impact through shared adventures, gritty experiential learning, and action-based leadership coaching. As a credentialed leadership coach through the ICF and Georgetown, and as a certified rock climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry ski guide, Knight combines his leadership experience, outdoor guiding, and leadership coaching practice to create life-changing growth for clients. In coaching, Knight anchors his client’s progress in leadership theory, intentional habit changes, encouragement balanced with accountability, and some outdoor adventure whenever possible! Get in touch with Knight and include “Georgetown Alum” in the email subject line, or learn more at Cairn Leadership Strategies.

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