Walking the Ridge

Walking the Ridge

At nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, the ancient Wapta Icefield crawls slowly through a bed of shattered shale in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. The scarred ice slab, in places as deep as the Eiffel Tower is high, is a sea of blinding white. Thin tentacles of light gray ice, hardly noticeable, betray the presence of deadly snow bridges - deceptive sheets of compacted snow that can easily collapse - propelling a climber into a bottomless black crevasse.  

When I traversed the Wapta Icefield it took mental discipline. 

Just as a climber needs mental disciple in the decisions they make on a mountain, CEOs need mental discipline in the decisions they make that affect the reputation of their organization. And that’s easier said than done. Why? Because the mental discipline I apply at the top of a mountain is different from the decision-making process I use on a daily basis as an executive vice president and general manager. Similarly, the mental discipline a CEO needs at times when organizational legitimacy is threatened is different from the skillsets they may apply on a daily basis to run a successful operation. 

Mental discipline asks an executive to stop, to force counter-intuitiveness, and to look for problems. It asks the frequently Type-A personality to exercise purposeful contemplation over data-input thinking, and to embrace scenario analysis over a predisposition to action. Perhaps most difficult of all, mental discipline calls for the adoption of a survival mindset, not a conquering mindset. 

On a glacier, when the wind is howling, the temperature is dropping and darkness is falling it’s often easiest for a climber to look down and walk a straight line. That could kill them! In a company, when a crisis breaks, an issue evolves, or stakeholder anger erupts it’s often easiest for a CEO to look down and walk a straight line. That could kill a hard-earned reputation! 

Mental discipline in a corporate environment is what will safeguard a reputation during an organization’s darkest hours. And that mental discipline asks leaders to be situationally aware. It asks that they reject the ‘straight line’ approach – the overly self-defensive mentalities, the dismissal of external perspectives, the reliance on the ‘as-we’ve-always-done-it’ orientations. 

Just as I’ve had to make difficult and uncomfortable decisions - as a climber, a diver, a parachutist, a pilot or an expedition cyclist – I’ve had to encourage intelligent, progressive and well-intentioned leaders to do the same thing. That requires recognizing personal fears, which may be uncomfortable. It involves slowing the pace of advance, which may annoy others. It involves adding levels of caution, that may be viewed as weakness.  

Just as the application of mental discipline will save a climber’s life, the application of mental discipline will create the type of environment through which executives can survive difficult moments and generate increased trust. That’s a trek worth taking! 

John Larsen is the Executive Vice President, National Practice Lead - Crisis & Reputation Risk (Canada) & General Manager (Calgary) at Edelman. He has consulted in the area of reputation management for over 25 years, and has provided executive counsel to hundreds of CEO’s, politicians and organizational leaders. He has held executive positions with several national and international public relations firms, is a recipient of the IABC Master Communicator award, and is a designated member of the Institute of Corporate Directors.