Principles of Wall Climbing that Build Your Leadership

Climber on indoor wall

Sometimes leading makes you want to “climb the walls.” I thought about this while I watched my son, Alex, compete in his first climbing competition at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. It was great fun to watch these young men and women scale these walls, including some inverted surfaces (like in the picture of Alex above). I’ve done some climbing, too, over the years. It’s a fun and safe sport–something that most people can do and experience success. To complete the most challenging climbing routes, it helps to remember a handful of principles–principles that apply to leading, too!

Locke Hughes at wrote about “10 Things You Need To Know Before You Go Rock Climbing.” Here is her list and my take on their counterparts in leading.

  1. Pick your poison—Just as there are several types of climbing (indoor wall, bouldering, outdoor rock, and more), there are also various forms of leading. Leading teams, projects, processes, change, organizations, programs, etc. It helps tremendously to know your climbing preference so that you can build your technique accordingly. You should know the kind of leading you’re engaged in, too. There is a difference here, though. When you lead projects, for example, you have to know something about leading teams, too. Each form of leading overlaps with the others, but it’s still helpful to know your current focus.
  2. Get geared up—The essential tools of climbing are shoes, chalk bag, safety harness, rope, locking carabiner, and belay device. Leaders, too, have essential tools: self-awareness, leadership knowledge and skills, vision, communication skills, passion for a mission, and more. A skilled climber will take inventory and make sure his tools are in good working order. Leaders should do the same.
  3. Learn the ropes—In climbing, there are basic skills required to ensure the safety of the climbers and others nearby. There are basic skills in leading, too. Some include communication, vision casting, developing others, and growing as a leader. There are more. Learn the ropes of leading so that those you lead are safe in your hands!
  4. Choose your route—Climbing walls have a system of routes denoted by colored “holds” which resemble real rocks and are bolted to the wall. These routes are also rated according to difficulty. Leading isn’t so clear cut. The path isn’t marked and the difficulty is rarely known ahead of time. When leading, having a mentor is the best way to understand the route and its difficulty. The mentor will have already seen the path and experienced many of the challenges you are likely to experience. [Update: After reading this, my son Alex pointed out that the reason a given route exists is because someone else, a mentor, did it before you.] So instead of “choosing your route,” choose a mentor.
  5. Engage your core—Climbing requires good core body strength, but also legs, feet, arms, and hands. It’s really a whole-body workout. Your core as a leader is your system of values and beliefs. You must engage your values and beliefs as a leader to be authentic and have integrity. You need to use your other assets, too, such as knowledge, skills, and experience. Leading, like climbing depends on the whole person.
  6. Keep your arms straight—It’s a little counter-intuitive, but straightened arms while climbing is more efficient. At the same time, bent legs provide more options and flexibility during the climb. There are counter-intuitive aspects to leading, too. One of the best examples is that the first responsibility of leading is not to be a good leader to your direct reports, but rather to yourself. Effective leadership starts with self-leadership.
  7. Plan your climb—Successfully traversing those routes up the wall (see #4 above) requires careful planning. Successful leadership requires careful planning, too. The most common trait of effective leaders is their intentionality. They put as much (if not more) effort into planning how to lead as they do into their core functional work. Conversely, the best way to ensure leadership mediocrity is to figure it out as you go.
  8. Learn the lingo—Every sport has its lingo. So does climbing. One of the first things that beginner climbers learn is the lingo because it’s all about safety. Leading has its lingo, too. Leadership terms are not about safety (usually), but they do convey specific concepts that are important to leading and to following. Examples include “vision,” mission,” “values,” “team,” “workgroup,” “leading,” “managing,” and more.
  9. Take a (safe) leap—Coming down from a wall after a climb is fun and safe if done right. When leading, we often scale great heights, too. We sometimes find ourselves where few have climbed before. It feels good to enjoy the mountain peak for a time, but coming home is important. Doing so “safely” means talking about your climb mostly from your followers’ perspective, not just yours. You need to be sure your leadership adventure is meaningful to them.
  10. Prepare before going outdoors—There is a large difference between climbing an indoor manufactured wall and an outdoor rock surface. The photo below shows climbers at Interstate Park near my home. In leading, we sometimes have the equivalent of an indoor wall to “play on.” Workshops, seminars, and conferences often provide these options. Most of the time, though, we’re actually leading “outdoors.” There is wisdom in realizing this and considering what you must do to be a safe “outdoor leader.”

Be a leader and go climb the walls!
Rock climbers at Interstate Park, MN

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Lead photo by author. Interstate Park photo from Google Images.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.