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Leadership at 19,340 Feet

I wrote earlier about our amazing experience recently climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. While I learned many life changing lessons on that mountain, I chose to write separately about something else I learned there that may be invisible to most. It is a lesson about leadership.

Taking average folks from the comfort of their Scottsdale homes to the outstretched arms and spirits of children in need in far-away Tanzania, and then safely to the top of the largest free standing mountain in the world, is the work of incredible leaders. Leaders by the way, unsung in the world of business, media, social gatherings and popular circles.

The leaders of K2 Adventures did what I talk about in all my programs in a way that I have seen few do it. They created a CONTEXT or environment without workshops, without preaching, without snappy slogans, without books, podcasts, seminars, titles, broadcasts or endorsements that not only transformed all of us on the expedition, but have become instrumental in transforming a country.

Kevin Cherilla
Kevin Cherilla

In the last 5 years, Kevin Cherilla and Kristen Sandquist have raised over 2.5 million dollars for medical equipment, resources, and supplies for an orphanage and school in Moshi Tanzania. It is part of their quest to support disabled and disenfranchised children and families around the world by providing healthcare and education from the proceeds of their expeditions and charitable fundraising.


Kristen Sandquist
Kristen Sandquist

I could spend thousands of words talking about the immense heart and spirit that they and their team exhibit supporting kids that the world has given up on and left behind. They do this in Tanzania, Peru, Nepal and across the US.

You see each mountain that they climb represents the even bigger mountains that these kids have to climb either to stay alive or to have a life; mountains of disease, abandonment, blindness, poverty, and lack of education. As a student of great leaders and building championship teams, I took note of what they did to get others to step up to such great heights (literally).

K2Leadership Secrets:

As always, it is about creating a context or environment that creates extraordinary results not words.

  1. Create and identify narrow time boundaries. Kevin and Kristen were always very clear to tell us to never ask about what was going to happen tomorrow or the next day. We were only allowed to ask about today. We were told about how many hours we would be climbing and what to expect, but nothing more. Everything was compartmentalized into understandable and limited time frames. Wake-up to breakfast, hiking to lunch, hiking to camp, unpacking and rest, afternoon tea and dinner sleep. I always say that most people cannot plan past lunch. Long term goals and strategies are fine, but to keep a team focused you have to shrink the space.
  2. Eliminate uncertainty through preparation and frequency of contact. Lots of mental stress comes from not knowing how to prepare for the unknown. Every night at dinner we were told what the next day would look like, what to pack and how to pack it. How many times have you ever thrown your team into a task and let them figure it out. Months before leaving, we had team meetings, team hikes and team packing parties. We learned to be comfortable with our gear, our bodies and our tasks. It eliminated a whole chunk of potential anxiety and worry about what will happen and questioning if am I prepared.
  3. Tight rules. Never pass the lead guide on the trail, stay together, be on time, drink lots of water, etc. It brought the team closer together. You felt safe because, while you were way outside your normal comfort zone, you were safe inside a bandwidth that you knew you could trust and did not have to think about. Once at the summit, our orders were clear. Take your pictures and start your decent right away. Those who were showing signs of altitude sickness go immediately. Even in moments of victory, close vigilance was maintained. Many times that is when we take our eye off the game in order to celebrate. Lives depended on it.
  4. Lots of humor. Everyone on the team got a nickname. My son was sleeping beauty because while most of us had trouble sleeping at higher altitudes, he would crash at 7:30 and sleep like a rock until 6:30 the next morning. It made for lots of laughs. Mine was peebottle because it took me two days to finally use a pee bottle in my tent at night rather than getting dressed and having to go out of my tent to weather the cold in the middle of the freezing nights. Laughter breaks the tension, reminds you that you are human and that nothing is so big that you cannot enjoy and laugh at and with each other.
  5. Forced focus and presence. We were continually told to focus on our feet, one step at a time. Only inches at a time. It forced your whole perception to narrow to a very small space at your feet. We were told, rest step and pressure breath over and over. So that became a kind of a mantra that created a rhythm and a focus that over 5 days got us to the top.
  6. Removal of distractions that would cause stress to the team. There were 3 porters for every one of us on the climbing team. They carried the food, tents, supplies and most of our mountain gear. They were at our tents at 6:30 every morning with coffee and tea, cooked delicious meals, cleaned up, broke camp and set it up again the next day. All we had to worry about was ourselves, getting rest, eating a lot and hiking. As a leader, you need to eliminate the distractions that cause your team to wander, de-focus and stress out. Keep them focused on what they are setting out to achieve. How well do you take care of them?
  7. Being tireless students of their own trade. Kevin and Kristen continue to take classes on mountain safety, first responder courses, the local culture and the details of conditioning and training. Do you love what you do enough to be a voracious student about it? It reflects.
  8. No smoke but tons of encouragement. They rarely told us you will make it. Rather they were always there in or alongside our team hiking column periodically saying, Great job keep working youre doing great! Their words always came at the right moments to feed depleted lungs and tired muscles with the right amount of energy.
  9. Continually watching the team. They seemed to know exactly when the team was waning a bit. They watched us all day like hawks, coming up to us individually and asking how we were doing, how we were feeling and just as you thought you were fading, they would magically call a break for rest, food and water. It always seemed like the perfect time. Are you focused only on the objective or are you continually watching and calibrating your team?
  10. Incredible graciousness. Their treatment of the porters, guides, locals and the community was nothing short of magnificent. In fact, the whole reason for the expedition was to support the kids in the school and orphanage. Serving others who serve you is the stuff of great leaders. The friendship, trust, camaraderie and caring between K2 and those who supported our expedition, creates a context in which K2 is always welcome back, always watched out for and always appreciated.

At 19,340 feet it seems to come together, but you know what? It starts way before that. It is about creating a context that is designed specifically for the outcome that you want. Creating an environment that is safe, certain, gracious, fun and rigorous takes work. What I can tell you is that their work changes lives.

Thank you Kevin and Kristen for giving so much by being the awesome leaders that you are.

To learn more about K2Adventures, visit them at their website: http://www.k2adventures.org

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