On Thursday in Yosemite National Park, just minutes after Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed "free climbing" a 3,000-foot sheer granite face known as El Capitan's Dawn Wall, Jorgeson said something that seems destined to enter the leadership lexicon.
In an interview with the New York Times, Jorgeson said he hopes their remarkable achievement, a feat that was once seen as impossible, "inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will." Everyone, he said, "has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context."
What's your Dawn Wall? One can almost hear the phrase being thrown around in business meetings, chanted on the speaker circuit, and discovered on the self-help and career advice bookshelf. (Indeed, that's highly possible: Jorgeson does public speaking on the side.)
Yet unlike so many motivational bromides or inspirational cliches, Jorgeson's quip deserves to become a question we ask ourselves, our teams, and our friends and families, given his historic achievement. Jorgeson was the younger and less experienced of the two climbers — he had stalled out for days during a lower section of the climb. But while Caldwell, his partner, could have gone on to finish days earlier, he held back to support his friend. On day 13 of the ascent, Caldwell said he "can't imagine anything worse, really" than reaching the summit without Jorgeson.
That incredible support between the climbing pair is just one of the many reasons the world sat transfixed, astounded by the audacity, strength and perseverance of their historic free climb. It's a method of climbing that uses ropes for safety, but does not include cables or chisels to carve out places to hold. And it's why climbing also has so many powerful metaphors for leadership. In that initial interview alone, Jorgeson spoke about wanting to know what he was capable of. About not lingering on the doubts. About finding his own way when Caldwell's route didn't work for him to follow.
Many have made comparisons between the challenge of mountain climbing or rock climbing and leadership. The leadership guru Jim Collins, an avid rock climber who scaled university buildings while a student at Stanford, has written about what it can teach us about stretching our limits, understanding the difference between probability and consequence, and changing our frame of mind.
Wharton professor Mike Useem, a climber himself, co-authored a book about leaders' experiences reaching mountain summits and takes groups of managers on Himalayan treks. ("Hiking trips," he says. "No ropes.") Useem, who says he's followed every inch of coverage on Jorgeson and Caldwell, finds the leadership metaphor of climbing so powerful because "nobody’s going to attempt anything close to what these two guys have done. But watching how they did it has great parallels with how we want to think about what we do in our more horizontal universe."
Yet the parallels are also pretty apparent — and, if spouted by a hackneyed executive coach, could be borderline banal. The steep consequences for any poor judgment. The high stakes and the power of reaching the summit. The mountains that still haven't been climbed.
Coming from one of two men who have just accomplished the impossible, however, the idea of finding our own Dawn Wall doesn't sound like a cliche. It's actually sounds pretty inspiring.