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Leadership Lessons from Mt. Kilimanjaro

| January 19, 2010

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Reading is Preston Cline’s ”Leadership Lessons from Mt. Kilimanjaro“ which appeared in the November-December issue of the Wharton Leadership Digest <> and is reproduced below by permission.

The lesson here is simple and clear:  In life there will always be error, failure.  It is better to fix the error when it is first noticed and small, than it is to wait until it gets larger and sometimes unmanageable.  I encourage you to think about this as you lead and in all aspects of your life’s journey.


.  .  .  .    jim



By Preston Cline 

Preston Cline, associate director of the Wharton Leadership Ventures (, accompanied 22 Wharton MBA students to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in May, 2009.  The venture was intended to help students better appreciate and further develop their leadership skills.  What follows is Cline’s personal journal of the experience.

Date:  May 30, 2009

Time: 4:12am

Temp: -10 F

Location: Somewhere below the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania 

Altitude:  17,521 ft.  (2,429 ft. above Barafu Camp) 

Distance to Summit:  1,822 ft. (summit at 5896 m/19,343 ft.) 

4 am had arrived as a bitterly cold, pitch dark and grinding ache.  We had only been on trail for four hours, moving steadily upward toward the luminous African night sky, and the yearned-for summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.  We moved at a creeping pace, one foot slowly in front of the other.  The expedition leader, Chris Warner, the founder and president of Earthtreks, had led more than 150 mountaineering expeditions before this one, including K2 and Everest and also authored the book High Altitude Leadership.   Chris and I have known each other for close to 20 years, first meeting as young wilderness guides — he, of course, was the older more experienced guide.   We share many of the same beliefs about how leaders and guides should behave on a mountain, the number one rule being that there will be errors on the mountain, but we should trap those errors when they are small. Most importantly, whenever possible, it should not be the guides who make those errors.  Knowing this, I had a good sense that in a moment or two Chris will approach me in front of the students and ask to take some of my weight.  I will need to say, ”yes.“  I will need to admit that I have made a series of errors that I could no longer solve on my own.    


Earlier that day: 

Date:  May 30, 2009

Time: 12:08 am 

Temp: 5 F

Location: Barafu Camp 

Altitude: 4,600m/15,091 ft.

Distance to Summit: 4,252 ft.

When the alarm went off at 11:30 pm, I began to prep my pack and gear along with Chris and his partner, Dan Jenkins.  Even though I was really more passenger than crew on the expedition, I could not break the habit of carrying extra gear just in case the students needed it.  I prepped my summit pack the night before — it was a small backpack designed to hold just enough to get to the summit and back. In it were extra clothes, high-energy food supplements and 3.5 liters of water.  I opted to leave it outside of the tent to maximize the space I was sharing with two large men.  

In mountaineering, it is very hard to stop during your summit bid for any length of time.  The action of hiking up the mountain uses water and calories to heat your core.  The moment you stop, the cold and wind begin siphoning heat away from your body.  If you stop to long, it is very hard for your body to heat back up, and each time it takes a little longer.  The key is to have everything you need at easy access so you do not need to open up your summit bag unless absolutely necessary. 

As we began for the summit push, the team seemed to be in very good, albeit slightly groggy spirits.  As is my habit, I took the sweep position in the back.  Along with one African guide, I began to follow the group up into the African night sky.  Remembering the importance of staying hydrated, I reached for the tube of my water bladder that sat in my backpack and took a draw. Nothing, the tube was frozen.  I immediately realized that in leaving my pack outside the night before, I had allowed my water to freeze, an amateur’s mistake.  In order to fix it, I would need to take off my pack and rearrange the bladder and the hose next to my body.  So, I decided that I would wait until the next break to fix the problem.  If we kept on schedule it would be in 55 minutes.  On top of not having a functioning water source, I had also taken Diamox to fight the affect of Altitude and Imodium to fight off the negative impacts of our African cuisine — both are known diuretics.  I’d also only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before so I’d begun the journey sleep-deprived.  

On the plus side, I was warm, currently hydrated and had a breakfast full of carbohydrates.  But, in making the decision to hold off on water, I had began the process of depleting calories and water faster than they were being replenished.


Date:  May 30, 2009

Time: 1:43 am

Temp: 0 F

Location: Somewhere above Barafu Camp, Mt Kilimanjaro 

Altitude: 15,981 ft.

Distance to Summit:  2,343 ft.

”Preston, have you been drinking water?“ Chris called out to me.  

”Not yet, my tube is frozen I will fix it when we take our next break,“ I replied.

Chris walked over and handed me his spare water bottle.

”You should have told me,“ he said simply.

He stayed to watch me drink and take in some energy bar.

For some reason, the day’s Student Leaders decided to not break at 55 minutes.  They felt the morale in the group was good and that we had great momentum up the mountain.  I once again did not speak up both because I did not want to be the cause of a break and also because my time awareness was diminished.  As a result, I had never stopped to fix my water bladder, so instead of thawing out, it was steadily freezing harder.  My decision to not deal with the initial error of the frozen tube was now serving to accelerate my reduction in situational awareness.


Date:  May 30, 2009 

Time: 4:12am

Temp: -10 F

Location: Somewhere below the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania 

Altitude:  17,521 ft.  (2,429 ft. above Barafu Camp)

Distance to Summit:  1,822 ft.  (Summit at 5896 m/19,343 ft.) 

I was trying not to focus on the pain, or lack of air, when my headlamp went out.   I remember chastising myself, knowing that I screwed up with the frozen hose and then disappointed Chris by not dealing with it earlier.  I had extra batteries but they were at the bottom of my pack and exposing my fingers to the wind and the cold to replace them was a less than appealing thought.  Once again, I was faced with the choice of calling for a break.  With the other headlamps ahead of me and behind me, I thought fuzzily that I would just suck it up.  It was then I noticed Chris coming up beside me.  

”Remember the talk you gave to the students yesterday?“ he said.

The day before, some of the students had been struggling with their packs to get up to high camp.  They had been asked several times if they would like someone to take some of their weight.  Each time they declined, both out of pride and guilt that someone else would have to carry some of their load.  When we got to camp, I sat them all down and explained that from now on, if someone were to ask to take your weight, there was only one answer, ”yes, thank you.“  If someone needs to ask the question, it should be clear that there is no other correct answer.

In recalling this lesson, I looked over at Chris and the whole situation became clear to me. Without realizing it, the group had put me in the center of the line so they could keep an eye out for me.  My pace was labored and my face was likely drawn.  

”Yeah, I think we should take some of your weight,“ he said.

”Thank you,“ I said in a distant voice.

At that moment, a few students appeared at my side and began taking my gear.  They had relieved looks on their faces.  At the same time, one of the other students who had also been struggling asked if someone could take some of his gear and a number of students reached out.   Looking around, I could not believe, after all of my years of guiding I had allowed a series of my own errors to go on for so long.  I realized, in that moment that in the event that someone got injured, I was incapable of helping with the rescue effort.  As I stood there with dawning awareness of my own series of failures, the student who had also been struggling came up beside me.

”I think I have figured it out,“ he began.  ”If you get behind me and we just keep the same pace, we can go forever,“ he said.

“I am in,” I replied and got behind him in the line.  

We reached the summit, all of us, at 8am that morning.


Lesson Learned

My initial instinct on the mountain was to explain myself or apologize or defend my behavior.  Instead, I went about trying to piece together the series of events that lead me to Chris’s intervention.  The answer came to me immediately – in choosing to put off making hard decisions that would impact the group, I had acted to steadily reduce my situational awareness. Chris has always said, ”In mountaineering, you have to kill your ego.“ In avoiding those decisions, I had suddenly become a lesson on why that was so important. 

Thought I knew that we would make the summit without a major incident, I also came to realize that my role on the expedition had become that of the ”bad example.“