What mountaineering teaches about motivation, team management & decision-making – Mark Inglis


A research scientist and wine maker, he also has a first class honours degree in human biochemistry. But that’s not what best describes Mark Inglis — the first double amputee to summit Mt Everest. He is the fighter whose career has gone from being a SAR mountaineer to a legless one. He lost both his legs to frostbite in 1982, when he was stuck in an ice cave dubbed the ‘Middle Peak Hotel’, near the summit of Mount Cook for 14 days.

Inglis, now a motivational speaker, helps people achieve their own potential in life. He speaks to HRKatha on what the corporate world can learn from mountaineering.

After losing both your legs, you were back in the mountains in a matter of two months. This time, you wanted to do the unthinkable — scale the world’s tallest mountain, Mt Everest. Is it grit, determination or a positive mindset that helped you to do the impossible?

It was a long time before I started to look at the Everest. At first I just wanted my legs off and to get out of the hospital. I was back in the mountains quickly but not anywhere near the capacity I was, before I lost my legs.

I was fortunate though, having been given access to resources. I could have easily spent the rest of my days sitting at home feeling sorry for myself and living like a disabled person. The reality was, that I was not disabled. I did have access to resources and I was given a new set of legs—different legs, but legs all the same. Today, my limbs are the best I can make them, may be better than yours! Through years of personal research and the trials and errors of an engineering friend, I now have high-tech carbon fibre legs. These are aerodynamic, will never freeze and their height can be adjusted to suit my requirements. I can even change the feet— daily if need be. That’s an advantage I have over most people. We have to look for these advantages in life, no matter how seemingly insignificant. That is how I stayed alive for those 13.5 days.

It is a combination of grit, determination and a positive mindset, plus the culture that develops as a mountaineer; a culture of always looking for a new challenge, a better way of doing things and thinking ahead. It actually took several years of very hard work and rehabilitation to understand that the Everest was even possible; I climbed many mountains in between, both emotionally and physically.

Once I understood and believed in myself that the Everest was possible, then it was really just a matter of staying on track, sticking to my goals, building the team and keeping the belief and determination with me each day.

What relevance does climbing mountains have in business and personal success?

It is all about mindset, and also about attitude, planning and team work, especially the understanding of how we can work in a friendly environment without actually being friends. This is what professional mountaineering is all about — and so should business be. It is not just about understanding that knowledge is essential, but that it is equally important to possess the correct attitude to implement it.

“Individuals with negativity need to be left behind to ensure that energy is available to those who want to ‘come along on the journey’.” As with any business, planning to climb a mountain takes time. We have to build the team, think through contingencies and execute the plan. The choices we make on a mountain can sometimes be the difference between life and death. The people we need to rely on with our lives are not necessarily of our choice, but we all need to believe in the common goal…to reach the top and stay alive. Business is not any different. Choices may not be life and death decisions, but each choice has a consequence, sometimes devastating. Once one understands this, one has better understanding of how to make the best choices that help us in one’s growth path.

They say mountaineering teaches how to make decisions in difficult conditions. How can one inculcate this in a corporate life?

One makes life and death decisions every day, every hour, often every minute as a mountaineer. In corporate life, one can make as many decisions and these can affect the value of the company, the lives and well-being of colleagues and also the achievement of success.

Sometimes, these decisions are like making life and death decisions, they may not make one popular but if one has a long-term vision, these decisions may be the best for the long-term success of everyone.

The day I summited Everest, we had to turn around a team member, who was getting weak. We knew that even if he did make it to the top, there was no way he could survive the journey back down. This guy had prepared for the last two years to summit the Everest and to be turned around with 400 meters to go (in reality 4 hours of climbing) was a difficult decision for the leaders to make. And it surely wasn’t what the guy wanted to do. But in the end, that decision is what probably saved his life.

Climbing a mountain and learning to make life and death decisions may not always bring one friends, but one knows that together one will be able to achieve the goals that one set for oneself.

Is mountaineering all about individual performance or team effort? What is the lesson for corporates?

With both corporates and mountaineers, it is about how an individual is integrated into the team; it is about the best possible infrastructure (team) to allow individuals to excel.

The basis of every team is an individual’s responsibility to oneself and to the team, for the benefit and greater good of both—collaboration beats competition every time.

In mountaineering, climbers set out with a focussed target to reach the peak. Can the same ideology be practised in the workplace?

It is essential to have the target in ‘sight’ but equally essential not to be blind to the changing environment. It is important to understand that often plans and goals need to change for survival in some cases and also when newer, greater goals appear.

In both cases, there is a need to focus so that the whole team understands the plan and each one’s individual contribution to the organisational goal.

Mountaineering is also not merely about reaching the peak; it’s also about preparedness. What should an individual do to achieve his personal goal?

Train, train and train! It is about creating the opportunity, then being prepared to grab it when it appears or develops.

“It is essential to have the target in ‘sight’ but equally essential not to be blind to the changing environment.” Any personal goal takes time, dedication and preparedness to succeed. One needs to keep acquiring knowledge and understand one’s own strengths and weaknesses. One needs to know and master one’s own subject matter in everyway possible— for not success alone but for when the unexpected challenges are forced upon one.

Not everyone in this world is motivated, how does one motivate the lesser ones in a team environment?

This is exactly what I do! It is about leadership combined with great management and governance. It is about showing others what is possible, that is, ensuring that team members understand that they are capable of so much more than they believe, and then, giving them the empowering thoughts to make it happen.

Creating a positive motivated team environment is an art, but is essential in these times.

Often exposing people to experiences that challenge them , offering opportunities for self-development, setting clear goals and not punishing failure will assist in keeping individuals in a team motivated.

It is also important to understand that some people will never make it, especially if they are continually negative. Sometimes, such individuals need to be left behind to ensure that energy is available to those who want to ‘come along on the journey’.

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