Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


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Book Review: High Altitude Leadership

High Altitude Leadership

High Altitude Leadership

“There exists a rare and special breed of leaders who…are constantly pushing past current leadership trends in order to achieve…extremely challenging goals. We call these people high altitude leaders.” High altitude leaders succeed by recognizing and surviving specific dangers that always emerge when they take themselves or their teams to the highest levels of performances. Principles that produce peak performance in the face of extreme challenges comprise the book HIGH ALTITUDE LEADERSHIP: What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success.

The authors’ combined experience provides a perfect backdrop for powerful lessons on leadership. Chris Warner is a climber and entrepreneur (among other things) who has lead hundreds of mountaineering expeditions to the world’s most dominant mountains. He teams up with Don Schmincke, a “mad scientist” and dynamic key-note speaker who uses anthropology and evolutionary genetics to remedy high failure rates of management theories. They blend their experience to point out important principles of successful leadership. The book, replete with stories of leadership in life-or-death circumstances, describes leadership from the paradigm of eight dangers high altitude leaders face and how to handle the dangers to achieve peak performance. The following describes the eight dangers and how you can avoid them:

  • Fear of death: Leadership can be difficult and dangerous. You accept the title of leader and work to make positive change in your organization. Then you slip off the cliff into reality. Things start to fall apart around you. Fear creeps in. When faced with fear most people freeze up. Whether climbing a mountain or running a company, letting fear take hold on your actions will lead to failure. Taking decisive action is the antidote for fear. “Acting decisively in the face of great fear triggers the actions needed for success.” Do not shy away from experiences that evoke feelings of facing death. Embracing the death of projects, goals, careers, teams or companies will propel you to become a more effective leader.
  • Selfishness: The act of placing a higher priority on one’s own desires or “needs” than on the desires and needs of other people defines the word ‘selfishness.’ Selfish behavior robs companies of profits, reduces job satisfaction and weakens organizations’ culture. Overcoming selfishness is critical to effective leadership. This is done by crafting a compelling saga — language and actions that inspire passion for a strategic result. The compelling saga drives performance, inspires value-based behavior and provides strategic focus.
  • Tool seduction: Tools are absolutely necessary in climbing and in business; but in the critical moments, even the best tools break or fail to provide the results expected. Do not be seduced by them. Seek for ways to use tools (software, hardware, new programs) effectively without getting bogged down and losing productivity. Adapt your tools to you (and your organization), not the other way around.
  • Arrogance: “Arrogance places organizations and teams in danger of death every day.” Read any major news source and you will find evidence of the effects of arrogance on companies and individuals. The simple cure for arrogance is humility. Though somewhat misunderstood, especially in a business context, humility actually stimulates strength and produces growth. A high altitude leader learns from failure and “finds arrogance intolerable in a team.”
  • Lone heroism: Ego-driven, selfish, glory-seeking heroism is dangerous. Lone heroism sucks profits because of the resources needed to clean up the damage it causes. To treat the affects of lone heroism, develop partnerships with other individuals and companies. Partnerships will help you leverage the strengths of many, which are always greater and more enduring that individual strengths.
  • Cowardice: Like fear, cowardice stops employees from challenging the status quo, holding others accountable and exposing weakness in a team. The cure for cowardice is bravery. Bravery can be induced by the constructive use of truth, shame and walking the talk.
  • Comfort: Everybody’s committed when things are comfortable. When they grow difficult you see who the true leaders are by their actions. “Great achievements sometimes require enduring extreme discomfort. And that’s when real leadership is tested, validated, and proven.” You need to persevere through difficult times, and then when things are going smoothly, watch out even more vigilantly for signs of too much comfort.
  • Gravity: Leaders choose to go to new heights; gravity is the great equalizer. In business, gravity emerges as a force of uncertainty that sometimes propels you and other times sucks you down. Let luck (yes luck) maximize your opportunities for success by being open to new experiences. Listen to your lucky hunches; your gut is usually right. Expect good fortune and visualize yourself achieving it — this creates a powerful source for success. Don’t dwell on the bad things that happen, focus on the positive.

High Altitude Leadership is a must-read for anyone seeking to improve his or her leadership abilities. The “cures” for the eight steps build on each other to derive a complete package of behavior that leads to success. The stories about climbing the world’s highest mountains are gripping and envelop you in the book’s principles so powerfully you come away feeling like you’ve been there, and with clear directives on how to apply the principles. I have never done serious mountain climbing or high-altitude mountaineering, yet I found myself captivated by the stories and the way of life the book endorses. The authors’ ability to weave real-world high adventure into a compelling leadership book speaks volumes about their experience. The combination is powerful and absolutely worth the read!


The Product Management Perspective: High Altitude Leadership promotes principles that — if applied to product management — will improve your products, strengthen your teams and propel you to new heights as a product manager (and beyond).


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Overcoming selfishness

One of the non-leadership attributes that bleeds many organizations of their productivity and consumes much personal time is selfishness. It is the act of placing a higher priority on one’s own desires or “needs” than on the desires and needs of other people. When individuals choose to serve themselves over others a callous exterior develops around their personality that deflects the love and care of others, and isolates them from reality.

In their book High Altitude Leadership, Chris Warner and Don Schmincke discuss the debilitating toll selfishness takes on companies. They call destructive and unproductive condition of selfishness “dangerous, unproductive, dysfunctional” behavior, or DUD behavior. They provide excellent examples of how DUD behavior is manifest by individuals and organizations.

How much profit is lost? The results of analyzing over ten thousand executives from 1997 to 2007 are alarming: DUD behavior sucks 20 to 80 percent of productive time out of organizations, with the overall average hovering around 50 percent. People admit they waste half their time getting distracted by DUD behavior, yet rarely does a company measure this damage to productivity, quality, and speed. So when someone asks you how many people work at your company, chances are you should tell them, ‘About half.’

Few if any organizations afford the cost of non-productive behavior. Individuals cannot afford the opportunity cost — both in terms of money and reputation — of selfishness. Here are three simple rules to overcome selfishness:

  • Think of others first: When you come to a decision point, think of how it will affect other people who are involved. If you lead a team, how will the members react to your decision? Everyone has to make tough decisions at times, and those decisions will inevitably affect others. However, if you pause for a moment and think of how your actions will have an effect on other people, you can move forward with a quiet confidence.
  • Practice integrity: The word integrity is not necessarily the antithesis of selfishness. However, by living with integrity you will naturally find yourself looking out for others’ best interests. Your actions, values and methods of working will naturally move toward altruistic behavior and away from selfishness.
  • Develop trust: The very act of gaining people’s trust will cause you to not be selfish. When someone perceives you are only in it for yourself, they will not trust you. When they see you have their best interests in mind they will trust you. Be aware of people who might take advantage of you (don’t let that happen), but give people the benefit of the doubt and the benefit of your trust.

As a leader, take the time and make the effort to develop a culture that overcomes the debilitating difficulty of selfishness.


The Product Management Perspective: As a product manager you depend on your relationships with other people. Think of others when making decisions. This is not meant to imply you do should always do what someone else (e.g., the customer, the development manager, the analyst) wants with no good reason. However, by listening to others and trusting their input, you will make better decisions, gain the trust of those with whom you interact and increase your value within your organization.