5 Lessons from a Leader Who Stands on Top of Africa

I recently found myself in Tanzania setting out to hike to the highest point on the continent of Africa. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t suddenly fall from the sky or wake from a dream and ‘find’ myself on the mountain. The prerequisite planning took place and I put in extra miles to get ready, but on the backend of a busy year and travel delays, that included an unexpected 24-hour layover in Ethiopia, I did feel a bit like I was gaining my bearings on where I was and what I was setting out to do about 3 miles into the hike. Delayed in our start because of the aforementioned flight problems, we arrived at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro as the sun was setting, the rain picked up, and forest nightlife began to produce an unnerving array of sounds and movements.

Our guide, Rashid, and his assistant, Harold, had each hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro a remarkable 290+ times. We found them through Adventures Within Reach. Their job was to provide the help and direction that my 22-year-old son/climbing partner and I needed on the adventure.

In the coming six days, we managed to safely hike to the top of the 19,341-foot peak, stand on top of the continent, and make it back to the entry gate. We also had the chance to watch our guide Rashid in action. He proved himself an amazing leader who taught us a great deal along the way.

If you want to be a great team leader, and I fully suspect you do, I would take the time to embrace the five elements that Rashid put into practice:

1. Perspective: Gain perspective on what matters to your customers

Rashid is one of the most customer-focused leaders that I have ever seen. During our time together, he asked questions to understand what motivated us, inquired about why we were hiking the mountain, observed our behaviors, remembered our preferences, and noted of our strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, he acted on what he learned to help deliver an experience for us that we would never forget.

At one point, he and I were talking about the university where he had studied. I asked if the university was nearby and if we could possibly stop at it after we finished our adventure. As a university professor, I said it would be fun to see the campus and get a souvenir.

We finished the hike a few days later and, having forgotten about the university discussion, my mind shifted to the safari we were about to embark on in the next phase of our journey. That is until on our way to the Serengeti, our safari guide pulled the truck over and Rashid came walking up. In his hand was a t-shirt for me from his school. He had remembered our discussion and had coordinated with the driver to surprise me. I was floored.

2. Purpose: Define your purpose and communicate it to others

By our second day together, it became clear that Rashid’s purpose was to be more than merely the person who showed us the right trail to follow to the top of the mountain. Yes, he did this and he did it well, but he was also a teacher – and a darn good one.

He had paid the price to learn all about the mountain’s vegetation, climate, animals, birds, etc. He willingly shared his knowledge with us. One of my son’s favorite memories is a video he captured of Rashid telling all about a plant that my son had snapped a picture of the night before. In the video, Rashid is knowledgeable, engaging, and helpful. He’s the face of person who is living out his purpose.

Not only did we leave the mountain more informed, but many of the most difficult portions of the hike were made easier by listening to the stories he told and information he shared.

3. Priorities – Determine your most important goals

I am a classic achiever, the definition of an Enneagram type three.

I love setting goals and then checking them off of my list. It feeds me. Frankly, that’s one of the things that attracts me to hiking. I think to myself: There’s the mountain. Here’s how tall it is. Let’s tackle this thing and knock it off the list.

The problem is then when you act that way, you sometimes lose sight of short-term objective that can knock you way off course when you get overly focused on long-term goals.

Rashid gets this. Yes, he understood the long-term goal – “Get Patrick and Clay to the top of the mountain and safely back down” – but, he also understands that there are many short-term goals along the way.

Each night, Rashid would brief us on the next day’s hike. He would tells about the terrain, the weather, the elevation, and where we would camp that night. I would inevitably ask questions about the top of the mountain (the long-term goal). Inquiring – How many miles will we have left to the top after today’s hike? Or – Does that mean we have only X thousand feet left to go?

In his unflappable manner, Rashid would remind me that we take one day at a time on the mountain. His point was that I shouldn’t over fixate on the long-term goal, because doing so could jeopardize everything. Yes, I should keep the long-term goal in mind, but I needed to focus my best efforts right now on the priority at hand.

4. Plan: Create plans to accomplish your most important priorities

Rashid involved us in the creation of the daily plans. Although he had hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro nearly 300 times before we showed up and would likely do it hundreds of more times after we left, he still brought us into the daily decision process.

He would layout options we could take (e.g., how far to hike before taking a break or where we would like to eat our lunch) and give us the chance to provide input into the plan. In doing so, it became our plan. Not something that was being done to us, but something we were co-creating. It also became a better plan. Rashid knows the mountain far better than we ever will, but we know ourselves and how we were feeling about the hike at any given moment.

5. Performance: Implement a process to strengthen your team and drive performance

I learned long ago that the very best leaders model what they want from others, communicate well, help hold people accountable, and remove obstacles that are blocking the team’s path. Rashid did all of these with excellence.

He hiked every step of the way, took the terrain and weather seriously, carried more than his fair share of equipment, and demonstrated respect for the mountain. We drew strength from his example, knowledge from his experience, and memories from his presence.

What About You?

If you want to take yourself and your team to new heights, I’d suggest you start by answers the following five questions:

  • Have you taken the time to determine what matters most to those who matter most to you and your team.
  • How clear are you and your team members about why your team exists?
  • Can you and your team members clearly articulate your top priorities?
  • Have you invested time and resources to create plans for accomplishing your top priorities?
  • What are you doing to help your team to grow, develop, and win?

I wish you all the best as you work to take yourself and your team to new heights!