The Seven Summits of Success

Leadership

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Rebecca Stephens MBE

The Seven Summits of Success: Lessons in leadership and teamwork from the first British woman to climb Everest

The Magic Circle, London

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Tucked away on an unusually quiet side street in the centre of London is the mysterious Magic Circle, where the London Business Forum gathered to listen to the inspirational Rebecca Stephens. Asked along as a journalist on an expedition to Everest, Rebecca got the mountaineering bug and her journey to become the first British woman to climb the seven summits began.

Stephens explained that she was initially “puzzled [as to] why you would risk life and limb to climb a lump of rock,” so she thought she had better try it out for herself. She accompanied the expedition on Everest’s North East Ridge and was so “exuberant” to be there that she wanted to climb the highest mountain in the world (Stephens’ ambition to climb the highest summit on each of the world’s seven continents came later).

This first encounter with Everest was a life defining moment for Stephen’s: “It was at that moment that I knew exactly what I wanted to do.” This is the first great lesson, she explained, for anyone who will go on to be a leader. You have to be “authentic […] you have to know what you want to do” Stephens told the London Business Forum.

After her first taste of mountaineering, Stephens’ goal to climb Everest meant training and her first major summit was Kilimanjaro, which she described as a “stiff, high altitude march.” That wasn’t to do it down of course, but it was an important “first step.” What was most significant was that she had taken that step; the first step is “acting” on an idea and not putting it off.

Denali, or Mount McKinley when Stephens climbed it, was the summit that preceded Everest in her quest. Stephens had not yet contemplated climbing all seven summits. Denali, she explained, is one of the coldest mountains in the world and good training for Everest. Stephens compared the uncertain environment of these great mountains to the economic climate and struggles faced by businesses today, “What we are living right now […is] much more like the upper reaches of Everest, or McKinley in the dire weather.” Putting the weather in perspective, Stephens told the London Business Forum that 11 people died on the mountain during the 3 weeks she was there.

It was her experiences on Denali that really brought home the importance of forethought and careful planning in any venture. There are three types of risk, she suggested: Calculated risk – with your eyes open; Foolish risk – with your eyes closed; and calculated risk – where you are just plain unlucky. Stephens’ preparation for Denali meant that she had to ask herself if she was prepared to take a risk at all. “Life is risky,” Stephens told the London Business Forum, “You can minimise risk but not to eliminate it is not to go to the mountains.” She argued that business if no different, eliminating risk is “choosing not to go there,” but to succeed “you have to embrace risk!”

When Stephens realised that she wanted to climb the each of the seven summits she encountered an additional obstacle, beyond simply getting up the mountains. Sponsorship was vital but it was also conditional, Stephens had to be the first British woman to do it. However, another woman was racing her to the finish line, meaning Stephens had to climb 4 mountains in 5 months.

Everest was the third summit that Stephens climbed but this gripping account was to be the climax of her talk to the London Business Forum. The next ascent we were to hear about was Elbrus – the highest mountain in Europe.

Elbrus, explained Stephens, is a “gentle, sloped mountain” but it offered its own unique challenges. An inactive volcano it has many glaciers and, with them, crevasses. Stephens wanted to climb this mountain with her friend, Fiona, who had neither climbed before, nor set foot on snow! With them was Sergei, who taught the technical skills and Stephens’ role was as Fiona’s mentor.

Stephens admitted that she quickly realised that confidence is an unstable thing. “You have to look after team players as much as you look after yourself,” she said. Using a climbing analogy to reinforce her point she explained that you have to keep the rope loose enough to give the person that you are mentoring freedom, but not so loose that if the person falls you lose the whole company.

Her next summit was Carstensz, a mountain that is rarely climbed and the only rock-climb. The lesson learned on this climb was that a successful team needs people with different skills. Stephens admits that she is a steady “plodder,” so she teamed up with an experienced climber. However, her teammate’s experience was limited to Wales, “where there was a café waiting at the bottom of every descent.” She needed his experience but realised that he also needed hers gained from tougher environments. They could not have reached the summit without each other.

Stephens explained that she received the most resistance from people before her expedition to Aconcagua. This was because if she was to achieve her goal before the other challenger she had to climb it out of season. It was prior to this expedition that Stephens realised how important it was to have “clarity of vision.” It was vital to cocoon herself from the negative reaction to her decision.

Stephens’ final summit was Vinson in Antarctica, which she described as a beautiful continent. With the audience gripped by her account of the ascent of each summit, Stephens moved onto Everest. Stephens explained that Everest is really only the most challenging climb due to the altitude. It was an expedition of many ups and downs; she encountered disappointment when on the day that her team made the decision that the weather was not right, several other teams made it to the top. Her dream was delayed but the idea of giving up was not one she even wished to contemplate.

Stephens paid homage to the rest of her team, particularly the Sherpas. On the day that she finally made it, they woke to clear starry skies above, but beneath them lay a storm. Her expedition leader, who was unable to accompany them on this final ascent as he was exhausted from aiding another climber previously, had to decide whether it was safe enough for them to climb. The decision was made and Stephens set off with the two Sherpas who she admits she couldn’t have climbed Everest without.

Stephens concluded that although her individual blind determination certainly played a part in reaching Everest's summit, the most important lesson she learned was what the collective power of a team can accomplish. Through working together through the various ups and downs that they faced, they achieved their aim and together made it to the top of the highest mountain on earth.