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A Model of Balance

by Elizabeth McKee

November 5,2006

What are the ingredients for a peak performing city?

I spent last weekend with 40 individuals at Wildacres Retreat Center. Our group consisted of MBA students, McColl School faculty/staff and 3 facilitators from the Chilean company, Vertical S.A., a company that specializes in using the outdoors as a means for teaching leadership, communication, and teamwork. Our goal for the weekend was to provide the students an outdoor experience to facilitate greater relationship building within the context of leadership. We achieved this goal and much more.

Our friends from Vertical have attempted Mount Everest, 3 times. The third attempt was a successful summit of the East slope, the most difficult ascent. They have climbed K2 and Antarctica’s Ellsworth mountains. All were tremendous endeavors that took multiple levels of commitment. This past weekend I learned the specifics of what a commitment to such a journey actually means.

It means 18 months of physical training to prepare you for the demands of altitudes of 17000’+. It takes the mental understanding of Dr. Rodrigo Jordan’s model of balance between technical, social and personal skills. It means a hefty financial investment for gear, clothing, food and travel, taking a 3 month (or more) unpaid sabbatical from your job. It means knowing that your commitment may end in failure. (Remember, they attempted Everest twice and failed.) And, finally, there is the potential of the ultimate cost, death.

Needless to say, I felt that our low-ropes course in the NC Mountains paled in comparison. I wondered if our participants would indeed gain similar leadership lessons from the experience.

Each group of 4, 5 or 6 had to complete 5 challenges. To complete the challenge, groups had to solve a puzzle, successfully do the activity and then plot the course to the next challenge. Each group had an “expert” member to help complete each challenge. No group had a designated leader. It was up to each person to step up during the appropriate challenge and say, “I know how to do this.” And it was the responsibility of each to listen to the other members of the group.

So what did they learn? Specifically, teams sited trust and cooperation as their greatest asset. Obstacles sited were lack of communication and listening as well as internal power struggles.

Let’s go back to the balance I mentioned earlier. Dr. Jordan’s model emphasizes that technical skills alone will not guarantee success. Personal skills and social skills play just as important a role. While mountaineering requires technical precision, our participants found that technical skills only get a team so far if personal and social skills are not utilized. In addition, common values create even greater strength within a team.

Dr. Jordan represents these connections with a triangle. The triangle has technical, social and personal in each of the three corners. Social skills include communication, conflict management, negotiation, teamwork and leadership. Personal traits include commitment creativity, perseverance, decision-making and motivation. Values are in the center of the triangle. Values includes excellence, respect, loyalty, trust and humility.

Dr. Jordan credits the successful summit of Everest to the above combination. He created a peak performance team. This team knew the importance of balancing the soft skills with the hard skills. His first two attempts focused on having the right people with the right technical expertise. It was not enough. He had to have the right combination of all of the above.

Lessons? We can’t just focus on having hard or soft skills in order to achieve. We need all for peak performance – including shared values. In our mountaineering teams, in our philanthropic foundations, in our businesses, in our city.

We need a balance. We create that balance by having the right people on our team. We each serve our role by knowing when it is our time to step up, say “I know how to do this” and lead. In turn, we each have to know when to step back and listen to the voices of those around us.

Thanks to Dr. Rodrigo Jordan, Aldo Boitano & Penny Bamber. Hasta nuestra aventura próxima, gracias. Vertical S.A.

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