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Leading Without Direct Authority

Everest Article
Written by:
Rebecca Stephens MBE
Rebecca Stephens MBE

In 1953, the climbing of Mount Everest was a matter of significant national interest. For Britain. With its empire in decline – and newfound competition from the French, granted permission to climb Everest in 1954, and the Swiss, in 1955 – there was a perceived urgency among the British establishment to be the first to plant a flag on this highest point on Earth to celebrate the dawn of a new Elizabethan age.

But there was a problem. The natural leader of this 1953 expedition was Eric Shipton, a climber who had led Everest expeditions in 1935 and 1951, but who at his own admission ‘disliked large expeditions’ and ‘abhorred the competitive element in mountaineering.’ He was a bit of a dreamer. There was apprehension among the members of the Joint Himalayan Committee that his eye might not be on the summit, or at least not on the right summit, and that once let loose in the Himalaya he might be lured up some enticing tributary valley with his book of poetry and his pipe. Thus, behind closed doors at the Royal Geographical Society in London, the Joint Himalayan Committee sat with Eric Shipton and, in the words of the RGS director, ‘made the right decision but in the worst possible way’. They offered Shipton leadership of the expedition to Everest base camp. Thereafter, the expedition would be led by their chosen man, a British Army Colonel, John Hunt, whose experience of military leadership, together with his credentials as a climber, could be trusted to get the job done. Shipton declined their offer.

Here lay another problem, however. Shipton may have been a dreamer but he was also adored, by men and women alike. A number of climbers who would be making up the British expedition had a strong loyalty to Shipton – in particular, the beekeeper from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary. Who was this ‘Thruster John’ to tell them what to do? No…without Shipton, they wouldn’t climb.

This was a story that resonated among the panellists of Skarbek Associates’ recent webinar on the chosen subject, Leading without Direct Authority, not so much because of Shipton’s dismissal, here described, but because of the way in which Colonel John Hunt stepped so elegantly into Shipton’s much loved shoes. The panel included Sally Storey, who as Vice President and General Manager for GSK in the Middle East, built a track record of delivering transformational change programmes across different functions and geographies. Also, former director of UK Special Forces and Commander of the British Field Army, Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb KBE, CMG, DSO. And strategy execution expert Paul Heugh, the founder and CEO of Skarbek Associates.

The subject, Leading without Direct Authority, was chosen for its increasing relevance in our ever more complex and chaotic world, one in which it is common place for leaders, often quite junior, to lead global teams to implement strategies that reach across functions, borders and time zones. Most usually these leaders will have to suffice without meeting any of their team face-to-face, whilst competing for their team member’s attention with other on-going projects, both global and, more immediate, in their respective ‘home offices’, whether they be in Paris, Singapore or Pennsylvania. This isn’t an easy job, and while technology and process tools are there to aid communication and organisation, the consensus on the webinar panel was that the differentiating factor was that which it has always been – albeit tweaked for a 2020 virtual environment – namely, people.

The human touch. Listening. Standing in another’s shoes. Understanding from other people’s point of view to get the best out of them, and importantly for them to get the best out of you. ‘Empathy’, says Graeme, ‘is underestimated and yet all important’.

Arguably this is even more so during a pandemic, when, whatever one’s personal circumstances, there is a collective background anxiety about how this unwelcome chapter in human history will conclude. Although interestingly, as Sally points out, at GSK they have been working remotely for decades, so in this regard the pandemic makes little difference. When it comes to leading teams across territories, she – and Paul, also with a couple of decades experience at GSK – have ample wisdom to share.

‘It is the mindset that we take to lead that is important,’ says Sally. And with a quote to print in bold: ‘Being a leader doesn’t require a title; having a title doesn’t make you one.’ A leadership title is meaningless unless people decide to follow you. We have to earn permission to lead, and trust is fundamental in that.

‘Being a leader doesn’t require a title; having a title doesn’t make you one.’

John Hunt understood this. He was bestowed the title ‘Leader of the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition’ by the great and the good whose permission and finance it depended upon. But what point that title, if the members of the team didn’t want to follow him and actually didn’t want him there?

Conscious that he was an outlier, the new boy on the block, John Hunt went to enormous length to visit each of the 1953 climbers in turn. It didn’t matter if they lived in the Lakes, or Wales, or were climbing in the Alps. He jumped on trains to meet each one face-to-face. Confessing a slight awe of this individual, I will add here that I consider myself blessed to have met John Hunt on a handful of occasions. He had a gift of speaking to you with utter focus and dedication, as if the rest of the world somehow melted away for the few precious moments you were in his company. So, it is of no surprise to me, that as he spoke to one climber, and then another, explaining to each in turn the importance of their contribution – how, without them, Everest couldn’t possibly be climbed – he won over each in turn. Even Hillary was charmed by Hunt’s personality, and by his admission that the change in leadership had been badly handled.

Now, as then, ‘you’ve got to put energy and effort into relationships,’ says Sally. The key word being ‘effort’ – all the more so if you’re leading a team scattered across all four corners of the globe, without the luxury of direct authority.

Cut to the chase and the panel agrees that the successful leadership of any team, regardless of business or sector, is as Graeme describes, the very same as the kernel of a Special Forces community. Namely:

  • A common goal
  • Trust
  • Empowered execution
  • Communication, or in Graeme’s words, a ‘shared consciousness’ (more of which later)

Naturally, this is easier when the team is physically together in one place – in the ‘home office’, let’s say. Relationships are built and fostered over cups of tea and lunch – it’s easy to have the odd informal chat, to ask questions, to check all’s on track. But actually, how often in today’s world is this the case? In a military operation, certainly not. Climbing Everest, not so either; the team may gather in a single mess tent at base camp, but once on the hill the climbers are separated by tumbling glaciers, crevasses, precipitous slopes, and the weather – often extreme. Here’s the point (if not too obvious): a leader cannot be in all places, and with all team members, at all times. Thus, there must be trust that every one of the players in the team acts for the collective good of the team, to move it towards its goal.

To earn trust, one must of course be trustworthy – lead by example. Trust depends on you and your team having the required capability, and on being reliable. But it also depends hugely upon relationships – without relationships, work would just be mechanical, absent of emotional drive and reward. And in the understanding of this, Paul’s advice when leading geographically dispersed teams is to ‘reduce distance’ – not geographically, for this isn’t possible, but emotionally. Build a personal connection. We may not have the luxury of travel, as Hunt did, but Zoom can be an astonishingly good substitute. Schedule a call and chat. See where it goes. Share anecdotes about family, children, what interests you might have in common. Then, a faceless person described only by a job title living faraway on a different continent, becomes a real person, even a friend. In parenthesis, I feel compelled to introduce another exemplary figure from exploration at this point: Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ambition to cross Antarctica was literally crushed by the ice in the frozen Southern Seas, that broke up his ship and left him and 27 men stranded 1800 miles from the nearest civilisation. He understood the importance of personal connection in building a team; it was essential for their survival. He also understood that there were some people with whom he might have a natural rapport, others not. It was for those with whom he didn’t have a natural rapport that he worked the hardest, taking the trouble to order books for his ship library that he knew to be of interest to them, so that he could read up on their particular pastimes and hobbies and have a point of conversation.

Sally adds to this theme of building rapport. ‘I strongly believe in the ‘leader as supporter’ approach, linking to the common goal,’ she says. It isn’t helpful to add to people’s problems by not being clear about what it is they are to achieve; far better to help them be the very best they can be in order to deliver. It’s important to consider people’s situation as well. Invariably, working across territories means working with people from different cultures whose first language might not be your own, so it’s very easy for things to be misconstrued and misunderstood. Important to listen intently, and speak plainly. ‘Attention to communication is vital,’ Sally reiterates. ‘It doesn’t matter in what medium you communicate, but how you communicate and what you communicate is critical. I would be putting a comms plan very high on the ’must have’ list to deliver any project in this global context, particularly if we’re talking about leading without direct authority.’ Build the foundations at the start and you can move quickly when the need demands.

Especially relevant in today’s dispersed workplaces, Paul adds that it’s important to be mindful of when and how often to communicate with people, so they don’t feel isolated. It’s crucial that people feel that they are a part of a corporate body, part of a team, and that what they are being asked to do is a critical piece in the overall strategy, that it holds meaning and value. It also allows an honest chat to monitor their experience and expertise, to gauge if they’re on top of the task or need a helping hand.

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’
-George Bernard Shaw-

The fact is that it’s rare for leaders to communicate too much; most regret not having communicated enough. And many fail to realise the fundamentals of communication, that it is a two-way process. It is about transmitting and receiving – and cannot be regarded as a simple tick-box exercise. Which is why Graeme prefers the term ‘shared consciousness’, which adds another, deeper layer. The information must be received, yes. But it must also be understood – properly understood, conveying the thinking behind the message to gain a collective understanding of what is to be done and why. ‘People are far too casual with emails,’ he says, ‘invariably the person writing the email is passing information he or she wants you to know, rather than thinking how will this be received by the person at the other end of the email.’

‘Planning is everything. The plan is nothing.’
-Former US President Dwight Eisenhower-

A shared consciousness, in Graeme’s view, comes right at the top of the list for a dispersed team to function as one body and successfully execute its strategy. And it starts at the planning stage. Quoting Eisenhower, ‘planning is everything, the plan is nothing’, it is in the planning that bonds between team players are forged. It is a failure, in Graeme’s view, for a leader to approach a new problem, or new initiative, as if all-knowing. Not only is it dishonest, but it forgoes the biggest opportunity of all: to invite the best thinking from every member in the team, to explore around the problem, to bounce ideas off one another and come up with solutions together, and in so doing encourage every player to take responsibility and ownership, to understand they have a contribution to make and that they are valued.

Planning is one thing, though. Executing a strategy is quite another. And to maintain this shared consciousness for the duration of a mission, or a project cycle, particularly for those that cross boundaries and functions, Paul is a huge advocate of establishing what he calls a regular ‘drum beat’ – daily meetings, or weekly meetings, whatever pace works best – where people can come together and eyeball each other on a video call. Such meetings would include a verbal briefing to bring everyone up to speed, but also opportunity for people to clarify any queries and work out their interdependencies – the result being that everyone is on the same page. Then, members of a team, working independently as in dispersed teams they must, have the best chance of making the best judgement. ‘Situational understanding and a shared consciousness,’ says Graeme, ‘makes a significant difference to decision-making in difficult, uncertain and unpredictable times.’

On May 26th 1953, there was only 3,000ft between the leader of the British Mount Everest Expedition, Colonel John Hunt, positioned at a high camp on the South Col, and two climbers on the team, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, instructed to give it their best for the summit. But at 28,700ft, just 300ft from the top and higher than any human being had been before, the two men carrying out the mission and Hunt, their leader, might have been on different planets. Evans’ oxygen was playing up; he couldn’t go on. And for a few agonising moments, Bourdillon weighed up the risk of leaving his partner to descend 3,000ft on his own while he pushed towards the glittering prize of Everest’s summit. But they were tired, and low on oxygen for the descent. ‘If you carry on going,’ Evans said to Bourdillon, ‘you will never see Jennifer (his wife) again,’ and together they descended to the South Col. Three days later, a second bid for the summit was made and Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay stood on the highest point on Earth – a triumph for British mountaineering.

True empowerment is built on trust – trust that every member of a team will use his or her best judgement, however difficult the decision, to get the job done. And for this a shared consciousness goes a very long way to upping the chance of these decisions being the right ones. It takes courage to trust. Graeme concludes with an illustrative quote of the purest form of empowerment in a military context that business leaders might do well to emulate: the words of retired General Stanley McChrystal, ‘When you get on the ground and you find out the order that we gave you is wrong, execute the order that we should have given you.’