from one of our country's best-known and most highly respected mountain guides,
Art Mooney. I've
climbed with Art for seven years, and successfully reached peaks from Nevada to
As I learned more and more from Art, I've applied many of his techniques to
my own business. In the process, I have become a better leader.
After he guided me recently to the summit of Mt. Washington and back for the
13th time--no mean feat considering Mt. Washington is one of the most dangerous
peaks in the world--I decided to ask Art what makes him such a nonpareil leader.
Trust me: some, if not most, of his tips, will apply to you, no matter your
1. Lead by example
Art's not one of those leaders who hands over the reins to minions and tells
them to take clients up and down the peak. He personally leads every climb to
which he commits. That means he suffers the same spills, the same intense
weather, and the same exhilaration as his clients. That's a big deal in the
I've booked trips to Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, and the Andes, to name just a few,
and watched as the senior guide turned over the lead to a far less experienced
I, too, try to lead by example. One example: In my business, it's not enough
to be active in social media. You need to be seen as a thought leader. That's a
hackneyed term that means very little nowadays, but true thought leaders in my
industry not only are prolific writers, they also take a very definite point of
view on a given subject. One of my personal frustrations is seeing so few of my
peers pen articles, much less posit a unique view.
2. Build trust
Art has a well-defined strategy when it comes to building trust with a new
climbing client. First, he determines their abilities, any medical problems, and
physical challenges. Next he asks what their personal goals are for the day's
activities. Only then will he draw upon his vast knowledge to select the precise
climb that he believes will challenge the new client, assure they experience the
physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits of climbing, and most
importantly, end their day smiling from ear to ear.
That attention to the climber's needs and preferences is what begins building
trust. Art began his New Hampton, New Hampshire-based business in 1990, and says
50 percent of his income is derived from repeat (read: happy) climbing
I'd like to tell you I spend even a fraction of the time Art does getting to
know my clients before I begin working with them. But by listening to Art as he
works with a new client, I've begun asking prospects such questions as:
- What will success look like for you?
- What motivated you/your firm to begin a PR program now?
- What obstacles, challenges, skeletons in the closet, or other impediments to
success should I know about before we begin?
- Aside from driving qualified sales leads to your website, what else will
make you happy?
3. Think ahead
Like any entrepreneur, Art thinks long and hard about who might eventually
succeed him at the helm of MMG. And like many of us, he's made some great picks,
as well as a few turkeys. One mentee Art nurtured for years ended up leaving to
start his own business. The exact same thing has happened to me.
So Art says when he trains young guides for the American Mountain Guides
Association (AMGA) or works with potential MMG employees, he looks for the
following leadership characteristics:
- Does the wannabe leader have a real passion for climbing? Or is he a
know-it-all anxious to strut his stuff at 14,000 feet in front of other young
I look for similar qualities. I want lifelong learners who don't crave the
spotlight for their individual accomplishments, but rather respect the craft of
PR and are always anxious to learn.
- Does the wannabe possess the emotional strength to lead a client in
potentially life-threatening circumstances?
This, Art says, is what helps make a great climbing guide great. Art must
keep his cool when the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse and
thunderstorms or whiteout conditions appear literally out of the blue. Rather
than focus on his comfort, Art checks with his clients to assure they're warm
enough, have the strength to continue, and are emotionally ready to battle a
driving snowstorm high up on a summit cone. (Trust me: That can be a bitch.)
While we won't mention names, Art and I both know guides who have gotten lost
leading groups up treacherous passes at night. We also know a guide who led my
son, Chris, and me deep into a crevasse-filled ice field in the Alps, stopped
short, and screamed, "Oh, shit! I'm lost!" That did not exactly inspire
I have the same kind of leadership barometer with my middle managers at
Peppercomm. While they don't have to battle fierce winds or blistering sun
(except when our HVAC system misfires), they do have to manage difficult
clients, uninterested media, and challenging workplace issues.
If I see one of my people suffer a meltdown (verbally or in written form), I
know immediately that he or she doesn't have what it takes to rise to the top.
They may remain a valued middle-level employee, but they can forget about being
groomed for the corner office.
If there's one quality a top mountain guide and a successful
entrepreneur must possess, it's this: grace under pressure. Lose your cool in my
business, and you'll lose a client. Lose it in Art's world, and someone may lose
4. Have a thirst for information
Art will never plan a climbing trip without first checking with other guides,
the local park service employees, weather reports, and other sources of
As a guide who has attracted such top sponsors as Mammut
and Five Ten, he also must stay on top of the latest,
greatest climbing technology (as well as reports of any mishaps or fatalities).
In other words, he's a news junkie. That enables him to provide the safest, most
enjoyable experiences possible.
I, too, am a news junkie. And, if there's a person, place, or thing (think:
software) that's revolutionizing how businesses market themselves, I have to
know about it. So I'll ask my own inner circle what I need to learn in order to
be ready to counsel a client who's smitten with the latest shiny new object.
5. Use SERF
Art spends a good deal of time training and certifying other guides on behalf
of the AMGA. Typically, these are intense two-week workshops in which
Mooney-wannabes must demonstrate they have all the skills necessary to lead
others into the heavens.
Art's devised a program he calls SERF. It's an acronym that stands for:
- SAFETY: Art and his guides need to know when to say when. If weather or
other conditions turn ugly, guides need to pull the plug on the climb and turn
around. Many guides and their clients have died because they ignored basic
safety rules (remember, for example, Into Thin
- EDUCATION: You would not believe how many pieces
of new mountain hardware, clothing, boots, and climbing gear guides need to know
about. They also need to know which ones to use in what conditions. I won't bore
you with the types of knots they need to tie and the anchors they need to build,
but each one has to be 100 percent perfect. If a guide uses the wrong rope at
12,000 feet on a sheer cliff, no one on that climbing team will ever read
another Inc. column.
- REWARDS: This isn't about monetary rewards
since few mountain climbers become millionaires. Rather, Art talks about the
rewards that come with a career that calls for working outdoors, pursuing one's
personal passion to become the best guide possible, and most importantly,
enjoying the rewards of watching clients become better, more confident climbers.
Art shares his clients' jubilation when they reach new milestones.
Climbing may be the hardest and, at times, the most painful physical exercise
I've ever endured. But I adore it for two key reasons:
- Climbers pull for one another to succeed. There is no competition to see who
can climb the fastest, toughest route.
- I am not a religious person. But I've yet to find any legal pastime that
comes close to matching the spiritual, emotional, physical, or mental high of
climbing. I wouldn't call it fun, Art. I'd call it a blast. Which would change
his acronym to SERB.
6. Trust your gut
There's no doubt that Art is a gifted, natural leader. So I asked him what
attributes he would use to describe the ideal leader. Here's what he said (see
how many apply to you):
- Having the ability to make tough decisions in a split second.
- Going with your gut instincts. Great leaders have an intuition that tells
them what to do (or not to do). Once you've made a decision, don't change it.
The mountain's not going anywhere. If your gut tells you today is not the day,
postpone the climb. How many times have you pitched a piece of business, hired
an employee, or made a business decision that you knew might be wrong? I sure
have. I never realized "my mountain wasn't going anywhere" and that seemingly
critical decisions can wait.
- Laughing at yourself. Art's the first one to laugh out loud if he makes a
rookie mistake (in a safe environment, of course). He also readily engages in
banter with his fellow guides and clients alike. I think self-deprecating humor
is a game-changer for leaders. Too many CEOs (especially in my field) think
they're curing cancer, ending world hunger, or preventing war. They're not. They
need to collectively chill out and begin
One final observation on Art Mooney. It comes from a member of his team of
guides, Alex Teixeira. Alex says Art's leadership magic is his ability to allow
his employees to make mistakes, discuss those mistakes in a Socratic method
(e.g. "What sort of knot might have made more sense in that situation?"), and
allow his juniors to reflect on what he's just taught them. "That's incredibly
empowering," said Teixeira. "We not only know we've just learned something but
we know that we've learned a new way to teach others what Art just taught us.
How many leaders make that sort of impact?"
I respect leaders like Art whose livelihoods depend on the health and safety
of others (especially my own). Few of us make life-and-death decisions on a
daily basis. But the leadership lessons from a gifted leader like Art can vastly
improve your performance. They may not put you on the top of Mt. Everest, but
I'll bet if you apply just a few of them, you'll find yourself reaching the
summit of some leadership or career goal you'd always thought was out of
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