Chris Yager, Founder
In this edition of The Map’s edge, we’ve chosen to shine a spotlight on leadership. At Dragons, we aim to nurture a community of young leaders whose voices, though singular, possess the timbre and conviction to inspire hope in future generations. In the pages that follow, you’ll read Stories from a homestay sister who is building her community’s first library, The founder of an all-female trekking company, and a human rights lawyer. You’ll hear from activists, poets, students and social entrepreneurs. This is our community.
I was once trained in a leadership exercise that has time-and–again revealed the same leadership maxims. It begins with a narrative of an Everest ascent, and asks participants to identify the needs that would go into a successful expedition. The workshop reveals the best results when participants don’t know that it’s a “leadership exercise,” and if they instead approach it as a genuine meditation on a successful mountaineering ascent—even when participants have no background in climbing. Here’s how it goes: The person leading the exercise presents the challenge of getting a group of people from Kathmandu to the summit of Everest, and asks them to brainstorm all that will need to go into a triumphant endeavor.
The conversation follows a predictable flow, with participants first identifying material needs for the expedition: yaks for transport, tents, crampons, communication gear and medical supplies. Inevitably the conversation trends towards the personnel who’ll be necessary: porters and cooks, a medical officer, technical climbers, a leader. As the exercise evolves, the conversation organically moves to the personality characteristics of a team that would be most successful. Eventually, participants focus their discussion on qualities of ideal leadership.
In the numerous times that I’ve seen this exercise play out, the same narrative emerges when going deep about the qualities of the team leader. Even when disparate people from disparate cultures participate, they arrive at the same basic conclusions. And that is this: a successful enterprise—from a goal hashed out in a boardroom to a successful ascent of Everest—requires of its leader authentic character, vision, an ability to articulate a vision, knowledge of terrain, and an emotional center that genuinely values each member of the group.
In any brainstorming, the best ideas often emerge after the obvious ones are exhausted. In the case of the Kathmandu-to-Everest expedition, when the conversation door is left open long enough, participants begin to talk about the distinguishing hallmarks of not just good leadership, but great leadership. When teams go down this path they consistently identify great leadership as something not simply quantified by metrics of goal realization, but rather by metrics of the longer-term growth and development of a project’s participants. A good leader gets the group up a mountain, but a great leader inspires the group to fall in love with the adventure. A great leader returns the group down the mountain with larger heart and vision and with the capacity to lead others themselves. In the world of experiential education, we say that great leadership occurs when a leader “leads from behind,” wherein a group arrives at the goal and says of themselves, “we did this on our own.” When individuals own their success and feel that they
In the world of experiential education, we say that great leadership occurs when a leader “leads from behind,” wherein a group arrives at the goal and says of themselves, “we did this on our own.” When individuals own their success and feel that they have lead themselves they become conscientious and caring stewards of others. They become capable and mindful leaders themselves. Conversely, demagoguery-as-leadership, or leadership that comes from cult of personality, results in tepid participation and leaves followers dispossessed of much personal gain.
Great leaders are visionaries who see and articulate a potential reality that is better for everyone. They have learned through personal trial and personal engagement the best ways to navigate the difficult terrain ahead. And they have a way of bringing out the best in those that work with them. Great leadership comes not from a place of celebrating the “I”, but instead comes from a place of building the “we”. It comes not from instigating a collective flight from anything fearful, but rather from an ability to inspire a bold dash towards something affirmative.
There’s much more to great leadership: courage, patience, experience and wisdom, among other attributes. But without character, vision, knowledge of terrain and a degree of humility, guides aren’t going to get a group up and down the mountain safely. And they’re not going to benefit from the innate capability of the group to lead themselves, wherein the greatest potential for achievement lies.
CHRIS YAGER is the Founder of Where There Be Dragons. After graduating from Bowdoin College with a degree in Asian Studies, he worked with Colorado Outward Bound before launching Dragons and leading the first courses in China and Tibet. Having worked with over 1,000 field instructors, Chris has been closely involved with the design of Dragons curriculum, in-country programming and new program development.