Thought Leaders I
Teaming at the Summit: World-Class Climber Chris Warner Uses Personal Stories to Create High-Performing Teams
Where Chris Warner works, building high-performing teams is a matter of life and death. "On the mountain, if you are emotionally or physically lacking, someone on your team will die," says Warner who has summited five of the world's tallest peaks, including both K2 and Everest. Warner discusses his experiences in Wharton's new Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams program. The program provides perspectives on top-performing teams from research and case studies, and the insights of leaders such as Warner, as well as hands-on experiences from rowing crew shells to the performing arts.
Warner has guided television crews up Everest and led the Shared Summits K2 Expedition in 2007, documenting the journey in a film that aired on NBC. He founded Earth Treks, which operates three indoor climbing centers and guides international mountaineering expeditions. He has taught leadership development to executives at major companies and students in business schools. He also has co-authored a forthcoming book, High Altitude Leadership, which will be published by Jossey-Bass in October.
"Once we can get individuals to recognize that it is not about them, the group surges forward."
Compelling Sagas: No Team Member Left Behind
To test their endurance and commitment to teamwork, Warner leads executives and business students on climbs. "These are compelling experiences that take us away from our comfort zones and demand the best to be successful," he says. "There has to be some risk involved for this to work well," he says. "There have to be real consequences."
To focus on building teams, he challenges groups to set a nearly impossible goal. The goal changes the whole dynamics of the team. "In any group, there might be six or seven people who are going to get to the summit, and another six or seven might need a lot of help to get there. The compelling saga is that 100 percent have to get to the summit and back. People who are strong have to subjugate their personal desires on behalf of that group goal. The people at the back of the group also cannot be selfish or they might prevent the strong guy from reaching the summit."
This use of a story or "saga" as a way of encouraging team members to set aside selfish interests for the good of the group is an ancient idea. It impelled warriors to engage in hand-to-hand combat, or to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. The "compelling saga" leads individuals to put aside their personal interests for something larger than themselves.
How many groups actually achieve the goal? Of the two dozen teams who took up this challenge to leave no one behind on a particular climb in Ecuador, only one actually achieved the goal. That team was energized, but every one of the groups was changed by the experience. "When everyone subjugates their personal desires to group goals, you start achieving things," Warner says.
Helping weaker climbers to the summit can be a challenge for successful leaders. Many of them have built their careers on fighting their own way to their career "summits." If they create teams, they usually are designed to make them look good. A team goal forces such leaders to step back and help others in the group achieve, making the entire team more successful. "We see this all the time," he says. "Once we can get individuals to recognize that it is not about them, the group surges forward."
Touching the "Drama Void"
While teams can conquer imposing summits when they have a compelling story, teams that lack such a saga can be stalled by the smallest obstacles. "If you lack a dramatic narrative arc, then the individuals on your team will tend to fill this drama void with their own petty issues," Warner says. "If you don't create an overall narrative arc, they create it for themselves. The momentum goes from the team to the individual."
Leaders need to create these stories to keep the team focused on the bigger picture. "If you, as a leader, control this narrative arc, there is no drama void. There is so much going on, there is no time for it," he says.
In Warner's own company, with about 175 employees, the story is sharing a passion for climbing with others. "We get caught up in that and it creates this whole narrative arc of what Earth Treks is," he says. "If we create a compelling saga, it begins to affect all our behaviors. We are living this experience that is a powerful core of all human narrative. It is no different than Jason and the Argonauts. People might not be conscious of it — but the focus moves from being a goal or work to something larger."
© 2008 The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania