When You Say You Are Fucked, You Are Only 45% Fucked: Lessons on Leadership from Nims Purja
When the team reached K2 base camp, they found it glum. There had been three avalanches, and all groups had turned back. No had reached the summit of K2 that year. Those who remained in base camp were stressed out and depressed.
But Nims Purja was undeterred. His grand adventure - Project Possible - required that he climb the mountain, and so that’s what he would do. First, though, he needed to break the depressed mood of the camp and convince others that it was indeed possible to reach the summit.
So he threw a party, K2-style. There was booze, music, dancing, good vibes, and letting go of fear.
Tonight we drink, tomorrow we plan! – Nims Purja
These are scenes from 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, the documentary of Nirmal Purja’s quest to climb all 14 eight-thousander peaks within in under 7 months (as compared to the previous record of over 7 years).
The documentary is great and well worth watching, and the turnaround in the base camp of K2 was one of my favorite parts. What lessons on leadership could we draw from it, I wondered?
Your Number One Job: Inspire!
A leader’s number one job is to inspire. Inspired people will try to do things beyond what they might think their limits are, and get creative and work hard when they get stuck.
Oftentimes, especially for people who find themselves in a particular situation for the first time, people get overwhelmed, worried, and lose hope of success too soon. This destroys morale and leads to a spiral of bad decisions.
But things are rarely as bleak as they look at first.
When you say are fucked, you are only about 45% fucked. – Nims Purja
A leader’s job is to impart his vision of the promised land and place the path to it squarely within the realm of the possible. The details of how to get there aren’t always clear - in fact they are rarely clear if you are doing something truly groundbreaking - but if you have great people who believe that it can be done, they will surprise themselves with their creative solutions.
This is what Nims did by throwing a party: bring the ascent back into the realm of the possible, and helped others rediscover their hunger for getting there.
Like Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
There’s also a silver lining in the dark night of the soul: the point where things get this tough is the point where most people give up. Find hope in the fact that this is where your competitors are turning back. If the going has been relatively easy thus far, then this is the phase that separates the men from the boys, where you can finally spring forward ahead of less worthy mortals. I think with the right attitude you can just about find joy in that.
Project The Right Image
Eyes are always on the person in front. Leaders must be aware of that and act accordingly.
You’re beat and tired? Don’t show it. You’re not sure how to get over the next hill? Don’t show it.
“As a leader, you have to present yourself with so much confidence.” – Nims Purja
Have the intellectual honesty to face whatever brutal situation honestly, but always maintain a spirit of courageous optimism for the path forward. Even if you can’t see the path clearly yourself, doing this will keep others in the right mindset to find it.
There Is No Substitute for Execution
Regardless of how inspiring your words and how confident your image may be, at some point you will have to walk to walk and demonstrate that you are indeed a master of your craft.
Being highly-skilled also unlocks paths for you that perhaps aren’t open to many others, allowing you to get creative.
In the case of the K2 ascent, multiple teams had tried and failed to set lines in the avalanche-prone area around the Bottleneck during the day. So Nims went up at night. This was a more challenging feat, but at nighttime the snow would be harder and the avalanche danger minimized. Being a great mountaineer had unlocked this additional option for Nimsdai and his team.
In business, I relate this to my favorite of Amazon’s leadership principles: “leaders are right a lot.” There’s no getting around it. No amount of hard work or inspiration will make up for bad decisions.
This seems to me a necessary but not sufficient criterion for being a great leader.
“Most of us are forgetting that from the beginning of our life, we are approaching death. Life is absurd, but you can fill it with ideas, with enthusiasm. You can fill your life with joy… When the pain is really forcing you to go down, you keep going up. You are really on the edge of possibilities. The edge of life and death.” – Reinhold Messner
How much of this is real and how much is good filmmaking?
After their arrival at K2, Nims and his team members succeeded in setting the lines around the Bottleneck and summited K2. Others followed in their footsteps: 24 climbers in two days, the first to summit the mountain that year. Nims and company made it possible.
Good filmmaking it is, but it’s hard to argue with results as real as that.