Mt. Baker Climb Illuminates Invaluable Leadership Lessons

Mt. Baker ascent
Mt. Baker ascent

July 22, 2019
Adrian Popa, Ph.D., M.P.A., Gonzaga University

Days ago I had the opportunity to join Alex & Joy ( on Mt. Baker to accompany a team of established mid-career women from highly admired Seattle-based companies.

Alpine climbing is a high-stakes environment for leadership practices and team performance, context that compels the paradox of self-sufficiency with strong reliance on the collective strengths of a team. Accompanying an all-women expedition on Mt. Baker revealed some invaluable leadership lessons portable to any industry or life. The following are field observations from a leadership educator and not an expert in the depth of women leadership research or literature.

Mt. Baker base camp

We learned that leadership is about:

Courageous Relationships for trust, credibility, team cohesion and performance, execution of goals, and dispelling myths brought to volatile and unpredictable situations. All climbers packed their own anticipated rough drafts with unfolding stories to materialize on the mountain. To paraphrase and adapt from Frankl, the summit, “like happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of the dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person or cause other than oneself.” It was evident from conversations, planning, and intimate regard that climbers on this trip were not plagued with summit fever, but rather motivated by relationships and commitment to each other as the greater cause. The summit was a welcomed unintended outcome of a much greater and everlasting purpose of relationships.

Listening with your eyes in order to hear, convey presence, understand and learn the unspoken – a lesson I continue to learn from my wife and daughters. Climbers on this trip had an intuitive sense of what the other was thinking or feeling, sometimes reaching out with a small gesture of kindness without even a spoken word. It was remarkable to observe and learn about the signs and triggers that convey deep meaning from a glance, sigh, laughter, posture, or explicit words of affirmation.

Invoking the heart to compel a mindset of hope, optimism, efficacy, and resilience in activating moments. Identifying and establishing shared values on the mountain was key to calibrating collective goals, strategy, and execution of the climb. Skills and dispositions informed distribution of pack weight, place on the rope team, climbing pace, frequency of breaks, reflexive assessments, and ongoing adaptations.

Embracing mundanity of excellence to climb endless, intimidating, energy sapping, mentally draining, and physically defeating crevasse filled snowfields. The voluntary suffering of these moments brought women into more intense solidarity and support through grit, perseverance, and intense commitment to others and the situation on hand. These long exhaustive moments were experienced in community with no invitation for arrogance or lone heroism often found in mountaineering.

Joy, wonder, learning, adaptability, and awe are occasionally the last frontier or fleeting encounter during hyper and personal pursuits on a mountain and/or careers. In the words of Victor Frankl, we are perhaps “no longer worthy of the challenge, suffering, and learning that a difficult situation [or unique opportunity] may afford us” when overlooking the unyielding majesty of wilderness. Although fear and love are both emotions governed in the limbic system, it is only through personal choice that our team embraced an outward mindset with genuine care for others, appreciated and respected the grandness of wilderness, and encountered collective joy that gave meaning to the summit and roundtrip journey.

For more information on Women in Leadership, please follow up with my Gonzaga colleagues Rachelle Strawther and Sherri Lynch.