I always loved mountains. Not that there are many in Washington, DC. But I do remember learning in Greek mythology of Atlas whose punishment was to hold up the sky from the Atlas Mountains. As a dreamy elementary school student, I imagined that mountains must be pretty big and strong to hold up the sky. I couldn’t envision anything so enormous; after all, the biggest mountain I saw as a youngster was Capitol Hill. I couldn’t even imagine who would want to trouble a mean and angry Titan just to reach the Summit of a mighty mountain. Then I grew up.
“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. … We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for. “– George Leigh Mallory, 1922
To obtain the happiness we were destined to experience in life, we must push ourselves to great heights in order to experience real joy. As leaders, we push our organizations to do the impossible and the difficult so that we can feel delight of knowing that our mission was accomplished. We want to do the things that no one has done, to set precedence and to plant a flag at the peak of a mountain that says … we made it to the top.
I was talking to a girlfriend who is going through a bad spell. I tried to explain a feeling that I’m sure mountain climbers must feel. We must experience pain to experience joy. To avoid pain is to avoid joy. Martha Beck in her book Finding Your Own North Star discusses that feeling:
“Anyone who … pushed past physical limits in some athletic event, or struggled to learn difficult but powerful truths understands that suffering can be an integral part of the most profound joy. In fact, once the suffering has ended, having experienced it seems to magnify the capacity to feel pleasure and delight. “
Frostbite, oxygen deprivation, fatigue, fear, uncertainty, doubt – all of these painful aspects of mountain climbing give birth to the joyful moment when we have arrived at our Summit and returned safely.
In 1995, David Breashears – the CIO’s mountain climber – led a team to test out the technology capabilities of the then new lightweight IMAX. The effort took a lot of innovation and engineering effort – including the use of NASA-rated grease that wouldn’t freeze, stiffen up, or shatter. During the expedition, a tragic storm hit that caused them to suspend their activities to rescue other endangered climbers. He measured success not by the pictures he took, but by helping his team reach the top, save lives, and return safely.
We all need our summits … places we must climb, heights we must reach. Furthermore, the purpose of leadership is to help others reach their summit. We must nurture within ourselves and our organizations the courage, confidence, and stamina needed to reach our peak and wrestle the mighty Titans of life.
Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA