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Free-Solo for Higher Education

Posted by Ron Mahurin on December 12, 2018

by Dr. Ron Mahurin—DGI Senior Consultant

Can you recall a time in your life when you faced both your greatest fear and your highest hope, all in the same moment? Does that even seem possible? If you’ve had the experience, what did you learn about yourself?

The National Geographic Documentary Film Free Solo chronicles just such an event in the life of the climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock: the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park ... without a rope.

El Capitan – No Ropes

I recently saw the film, and was not only captivated by the compelling story, but frankly, frightened out of my mind. The last 20 minutes which chronicles Honnold’s ascent up and through the most dangerous portion of the El Capitan rock is both riveting and ultimately, inspiring. If you’ve seen it - you get it. If you haven’t, take a friend or loved one with you and go.

When I left the theater, my hands were still sweaty. One question had me: how might Honnold’s bravery (and seeming insanity) give both inspiration and direction to you and me as we face the greatest challenges in our own leadership climb?

Mandatory Training

In Alex Honnold’s case, the vision/dream began as young boy: to become the first person ever to free solo what is considered to be the world’s most difficult rock. He trained on rock walls in the safety and security of a facility designed for aspiring climbers. The documentary follows Honnold’s life through chapters of greater and greater challenges. He takes on increasingly more difficult climbs leading up to the epoch-making June 2017 climb in Yosemite National Park.

The tension between the pursuit of an ultimate goal and the high likelihood that failure would lead to instant death is not something that most of us will ever face. Yet the stakes are still very high for those who lead and serve on those treacherous vertical granite faces of higher education.

I believe we can learn several important leadership lessons from Honnold’s story.

Lesson 1: Don’t go it alone.

While ultimately Alex had to make this journey solo, he was never alone.  Throughout the years of training and preparation, he had his own guides, mentors, and Sherpas with whom he consulted, trained, and drew inspiration. The “Free Solo” was his, but it was built upon a solid foundation of friendship, support, and even love.

Lesson 2: Years not Days.

The preparation to take on the biggest rock-climbing challenge of his life was built upon years of disciplined practice and training, yet with a clear-minded realization that it might not end well.

In an interview with  New Yorker magazine, Honnold deliberately confronts the possibility of death, then sets it aside. “I certainly thought about falling from the crux—I thought about what that would mean,” he said. “Because there are a couple of little ledges under it, so I thought maybe you’d stick the ledge. But when you really look at it objectively, there’s no way you can stick the ledge. You’d just frickin’ shoot off the ledge. And then there’s a chance you’d maybe land on the spire, which is maybe eighty meters below you, but obviously, you would die. I thought about all that stuff. It’s worth being prepared.”

Lesson 3: The leap of faith.

Following the years of preparation, he took on the challenge.  As he scales the rock, there is a particular moment in the climb where he literally must take a ‘leap of faith’ to move from one section of the wall to another. When the time came, he was able to do this rather calmly, not only because he had trained (with ropes) to take this death-defying move, but because he was singularly focused.

What about you?

What’s your biggest dream/goal that compels you to get up every day, to face the challenges, and yet be inspired to keep going? Are you intentional about building the support you need to face that challenge? And what is it going to take for you to make the “leap of faith” when you get to that moment when it’s time to make that decision that could change the future of your institution?

Be prepared. Don’t try to scale the mountain alone. When it’s time to act, don’t hesitate. The stakes are high to be sure. In addition, we have so many great opportunities to help others scale their own mountains, too.

Just as Alex has inspired the world, so you will inspire others by your willingness to take that risk: that perilous but rewarding leap of faith.

Topics: leadership coaching, business, education