Leadership Perspectives: Q&A with Kenton Cool

Kenton Cool is one of Britain’s most high-profile and celebrated climbers, having successfully climbed Mount Everest fourteen times. With a track record of navigating the world’s most challenging peaks, he is the only Briton to ski down two 8,000m peaks.  As an official IFMGA guide for fellow mountaineers. including Sir Ranulph Fiennes in 2007, Kenton holds the highest success rate of any mountain guide on Everest.

Below, in conversation with Charlie Coode (CC), Kenton (KC) shares his thoughts on leadership, from his experience in the mountains.

Question 1

CC: Mountaineering is often seen as a solitary sport, is this a fair reflection of how it works in reality?

KC:  Mountaineering isn’t as solitary a sport as you might think. Generally, when I head into the mountains, it’s with close friends climbing for fun, or with clients, professionally leading others. On Everest, at Base Camp, we share with another team to generate that environment where there are lots of other people to interact with.  One thing people don’t fully understand is the amount of down time there is – a lot of sitting around – and the single most important thing is to be able to get on with those individuals. So, it’s not a case of spending a lot of time on your own, as such, as you have people around you sharing the experience – and sometimes the anxieties and stress that come with mountaineering.

Question 2

CC: What leadership lessons has your time in the mountains taught you?

KC: The mountain is a very unforgiving place and it’s an excellent arena in which to learn – to learn about yourself and others, and how teams operate in order to be as efficient and as successful as possible. If I distilled everything down over the years, it’s knowing when to be aggressive or bold on the mountain, i.e. to perhaps take risks that others won’t and, at the same time, knowing when to step back. That means knowing when to be patient, to take my time and to perhaps wait for another day. It’s very easy to bring adrenaline into the mountains and want to get things done quickly.

Although I’m a firm believer that the bold are often rewarded, the critical thing I’ve learnt is knowing when to be bold, when to be that individual who is willing to step up the plate to say, ‘I’ll do this’ and, counter-intuitively, knowing when to be patient.

We live in a ‘now’ culture, where we’re all super connected and on social media, but that’s not the way the mountains work. The mountains have been there for millions of years and will be there for many more.  The virtue of patience is as critically important as being bold.

Question 3

CC: Being in a position of leadership often means being presented with difficult decisions. Can you tell me about a time when you were called upon to make a tough call?

KC: There have been many occasions where I or my team mates have been pushed to make leadership decisions.  A real test of my Everest leadership was in 2006 – an experience which, for me, validated my role as an Everest leader.

I was in charge of a commercial expedition, with a group of clients and a team of Sherpas, opening the route up to the summit, quite late in the day. The difficulty was whether to turn back or to continue, knowing that we were about to break the professional guideline for Mount Everest – the non-negotiable deadline of 1pm. It doesn’t matter where you are on the mountain at that time, at 1pm you either come down or you turn around. On this occasion, we eventually attained the summit at 3.15pm.

I was very conscious of the danger this presented – burning through precious supplies of oxygen, whilst assessing weather conditions, physical and mental tiredness of my clients and the strength of the Sherpas. Also, I had to consider my own physicality and mental state: how was I feeling? It’s easy in a crisis to forget about oneself and I had to be productive, taking full responsibility for the experience and, ultimately, the survival of, those I’m leading. The decision was not just if clients would summit that day but if they would survive that day.

2006 was very difficult as there was no one I could turn to – and in a way, I like the fact that I could not defer the decision.  That said, being dictatorial is not my style. There are times that you need to be forceful, but I like to be inclusive and it was a collective decision to continue. We sat down and had a discussion about whether everyone was happy about the environment and the decision.

On reflection, on that day in 2006 we summited and descended safely, with the incredible support of the Sherpa crew, and I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved as a team. Those 19 hours on the mountain not only validated my own leadership and ethos, but also since then our team has gone from strength to strength.

Question 4

CC: Who are your leadership heroes?

One leader that immediately comes to mind is Winston Churchill. His unwavering commitment and confidence during incredibly trying times, along with his ability to whip up belief from those around him is a very strong and unique quality in a leader.

When I think of Mahatma Ghandhi and his approach to leadership, as a pacifist, I find it remarkable that he effected so much change – the millions of lives that he touched and improved in his constant quest.

In terms of mountaineering leaders, Sir John Hunt, leader of the 1953 Everest team, was under an immense amount of pressure in a clinically planned and executed expedition.  I’ve seen some fantastic film footage of Hunt greeting Hillary at the end of the expedition, when he expresses his sheer relief by embracing Hillary when he discovers that he’s achieved the summit.

Maurice Herzog, the French climber who led the successful 1950 Annapurna expedition, the first time an 8,000m peak had been climbed, really held his own as a leader. In this climb, he was dealing with some huge egos within the team, some of the world’s biggest names in climbing, such as Louis Lechanel and Lionel Terray and it’s fascinating how he kept it all together, leading extremely well.

I look at all these leaders and pick out tremendous qualities from each of them.

CC: Thank you, Kenton.

Kenton Cool is one of the panel speakers at Coode’s 2019 Annual Reception at the Royal Geographical Society on Tuesday 8th October.  To find out more about this event, please contact events@coodeassociates.com or call 020 8239 8260.



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