Christopher I. Maxwell discusses his new book on leadership.
Business leaders can find lessons even from unlikely sources such as mountain guides, who follow principles that apply in business settings, says Christopher I. Maxwell. He is a senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management and an adjunct professor at the school. Maxwell, an avid mountain climber, found that guides display six leadership traits — such as social intelligence and adaptability — that empower other climbers. He distilled these lessons in a new book, Lead Like a Guide: How World-Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to Be Better Leaders. He discussed the main takeaways of his book on the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Below is an edited version of the transcript of the conversation.
[email protected]: Let’s start with the back story, because it’s unique to correlate the leadership qualities of guides with the business aspects.
Christopher Maxwell: This began in somewhere around 2004-2005, when [Wharton management professor] Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management here, gave me a little funding to go out to one of the most remarkable places in the country, and that’s Jackson Hole, Wyoming. [It is] a beautiful place, with wonderful mountains and an expert group of guides. I climbed with them four or five times, and met the president of Exum Mountain Guides, who said, “I can introduce you to a bunch of the guides that you can interview.” I had a wonderful week. At the foot of the Grand Teton [National Park], I invited eight guides to come in, one or two every evening, to have dinner with us, and just have a chat. I asked them the same question, “Why do you guide?” — I taped every interview. Reading through all the transcripts, I realized there were about six leadership strengths that they all seemed to demonstrate. I hadn’t coordinated any of this with any of them. These leadership strengths were not just good and effective in the mountains. They seemed to apply to business, too.
I went from there and did trips in Nepal, Iceland, Quebec, Mexico, Patagonia and Peru, and interviewed more guides on these trips. I ended up doing 20 expeditions with guides around the world, in seven countries. From my notes and my thoughts, I realized that they all have the same set of leadership strengths. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could apply those strengths in another environment? For me and others here [at Wharton], that environment is business.
“Social intelligence is just that extra step of, ‘I want to form a relationship that really works, and I’m going to manage that relationship.’”
The guides had the following strengths. First, they were socially intelligent. You can imagine to get someone to the top of a peak, a guide really has to be tuned into that person very quickly. [They have to] understand their client, learn a little bit about them, and especially, build a relationship that’s not going to crumble. You’re under tough conditions [like] bad weather and high peaks, so you’ve got to be socially intelligent and get this person to work with you.
The second was, they were adaptable. Every guide was flexible in the way they led. Sometimes they could just have a nice chat and a conversation with you. Other times, it was, “Don’t step to the left, don’t step to the right, or you’re going to die.” They had this power of being both “affiliative” — they were friendly and nice — and yet, they could be quite demanding when they needed to be. That’s a quality that a business leader needs — to be able to be flexible and have different leadership styles.
[email protected]: I would think there are many times when leaders aren’t flexible enough.
Maxwell: [It’s] the same with being coercive. There are times on the mountain when a guide would have to say, “Do this. And if you don’t do what I tell you, you’re going to have a problem.” But if you’re like that all the time, it’s not going to work. So, guides have learned to be flexible and use the right style at the right time. That’s one of the keys that business people need to learn. They can simply go and read Dan [Goleman’s] great article in The Harvard Business Review, and it will give them a great list of the six styles.
[email protected]: I want to go back to social intelligence. In the course of a day of business, we assume things that happen. We don’t necessarily make that correlation with social intelligence all the time.
Maxwell: We often get it confused with emotional intelligence, which is, “I’m self-aware, and I’m aware of others. I have antenna that can pick up your emotions, and I can feel empathy.” I think most people are pretty well in tune with emotional intelligence.
Social intelligence takes it a step further. It’s about relationships. It’s about building positive relationships. It’s about making relationships at work, based on trust and intimacy. Social intelligence is just that extra step of, “I want to form a relationship that really works, and I’m going to manage that relationship.”
[email protected]: That seems to be something that more companies are doing these days, when you think about having the flexibility to work from home, or work from the office.
Maxwell: Yes. You’re also dealing with so many different cultures in the workplace now. It really requires a manager to be socially intelligent, and be thoughtful about, “What kind of relationship do I want to build? And how do I maintain it?”
[email protected]: Empowering others is a part of what these guides do. But when you think about it in an office setting, that’s a core need — to be able to empower others to get the most out of themselves.
Maxwell: I think so, too. Guides empower their clients to reach a summit that they never thought they would be able to reach. And it definitely applies in business. We’ve talked about empowerment for years and years. Some authors say empowerment is really about removing obstacles in your way. That’s pretty much what a guide would do. A guide would help you manage the weather, manage the route, and get to the summit, and empower you.
A friend of mine who’s a guide says, “My job is not to give you a hand up from the summit. My job is to provide the shoulders for you to stand on. But it’s not my job to pull you up.” In business, you need to tell people, “I’m here to remove the road blocks that are in your way. But you need to succeed. And it’s my job to help you, in any way I can. But I can’t do it for you. That’s why you’re needed here.”
[email protected]: That is the expectation of the people in that troupe or on that tour. Employees in a company also have that expectation of attaining that empowerment.
Maxwell: That’s right. There’s a great study by