Death Zone Leadership

Jun 11, 2021


The Death Zone is 23,000+ feet, where oxygen cannot sustain human life. At that altitude, can you still be polite? Or, are you the “DUD”?

Chris Warner, mountaineer and co-author of High Altitude Leadership, has led over 150 summit expeditions. For Warner, a typical day at the office is near the Death Zone. It is called the death zone because, at 23,000+ feet above sea level, available oxygen in the air cannot sustain human life. It is not just the lack of oxygen that presents hazards, it is also the threat of avalanche, dehydration, hypothermia, frost bite, disorientation, hallucination, and exhaustion. Warner's clients pay about $40,000 per summit bid. 

 So, if his clients pay him that much, doesn’t he have to let them make big decisions or do as they please?  Absolutely not! Frankly, there is very little tolerance for tactfulness or political correctness when life or limb is at stake.

Believe it or not, politeness can threaten the life of a business, too! Warner calls it DUD behavior: Dangerous, Unproductive, and Dysfunctional. At high altitudes, leaders are required to make accurate assessments, difficult decisions, and tell the truth. It takes wisdom and authority to properly respond to the myriad of conditions impacting a summit bid: weather, terrain, climber stamina, and team experience. Though typically not defying death, this same authority is used for supporting and sustaining a team back at the office.

Business leaders must be sincere and forthright with their authority by:1

  1. Challenging others on their lack of accountability
  2. Exposing weak members of a team
  3. Confronting arrogance
  4. Uncovering selfishness
  5. Acting during a time of real need even when it requires personal sacrifice
  6. Divulging the state of doomed projects
  7. Admitting faults
  8. Challenging lone heroes
  9. Developing partnerships
  10. Pushing people past their comfort zones
  11. Eliminating the seduction of the latest management theory
  12. Challenging others to say the unsaid
  13. Making brave decisions

If leaders don't guide with high altitude leadership, their businesses are headed for the death zone. DUD behavior impacts employee turnover, profit margin, and legal exposure-- just to name a few. Successful influencers must be tough, and nice. They must balance truth with tactfulness, even if it hurts.

“Comfort promotes politeness. But politeness eats truth. And lack of truth eats profits.” ~ High Altitude Leadership, by Chris Warner and Don Schmincke

Sources: 1 Book: High Altitude Leadership, by Chris Warner and Don Schmincke; YouTube: Chris Warner's K2 Climb (1m 45s).

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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