9-15 October 2015 #779

"Teamwork is an individual skill"

Interview with mountaineer and motivational speaker David Lim


In 1998, Singaporean David Lim led his country’s first successful expedition to climb Mount Everest. Since 1999, undeterred by the effects of a rare nerve disorder, he has gone to lead more than 15 mountaineering expeditions around the world. Ashutosh Tiwari caught up with the sought-after mountaineer and motivational speaker at a leadership program hosted by the National Banking Institute (NBI) in Kathmandu.

How is leading a climbing expedition similar to leading teams in today’s corporate environment? 

It’s similar in that you are coping with fast changing external environments while leading a team, often of disparate personalities, into a challenging situation. Over a longer time frame, leading an expedition requires several skills such as creating a motivational environment to thrive in, seeking debate and making decisions together, winning buy-ins for some of the unpopular decisions, and ultimately choosing the right people to spearhead the final summit attempt.

But climbers are also known to look out only for their own interests, and are not known to care whether others die or succeed. How does one reconcile this image of a climber with what climbing metaphors signal?

Some of the best mountaineers are indeed selfish, insofar as being primarily motivated to reach their own goals. You can see this manifest itself in solo expeditions, or sometimes in commercially driven expeditions where there is a far lower history of bonding among the team members. The paid guide is there primarily to fulfill each of the clients’ personal desires.

However, in other contexts where a peer group comes together with a set of shared values and agreed upon priorities and goals, you can have wonderfully enriching experiences which enable people to share the tribulations, and to support one another over the period of the expedition. Teamwork ultimately is an individual skill, where people who share similar goals work out their mutual expectations, and contribute towards making the work a good experience for everyone.

In your presentation, you mentioned that micro-behaviours tell us a lot about people. How can executives make use of this idea?

Instead of deciding or judging people on the basis of highly subjective criteria such as personalities, perceived promises or rumours, executives should borrow concepts from the coaching world – where we focus on transforming specific, observable behaviours (SOBs) when working with people to produce specific outcomes. By focusing on people’s SOBs, we move the emphasis towards actual behaviours that support a goal. This can defuse confrontational situations, especially when a party has agreed to do a task but their SOBs say otherwise.

You also talked about ‘creating a winning culture’. How does an organization create its culture and why is getting that right more important than getting the strategy right?

A big aspect of implementing any strategy is getting people to practise winning (and not ‘whining’) attitudes, habits and behaviours. Winning teams that know what they need to do to keep winning know this, and will do so. But this sort of culture can only be created if top management focuses on developing the attitudes, habits and behaviours of their people to achieve the shared goals.

Nepali organizations face a lot of shocks, most of which are unpredictable and outside of their control. How can organizational leadership embed ‘resiliency’ into their framework of day-to-day work?

Resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from shocks and setbacks is both an institutional imperative as well as a personal one. Companies can, for example, develop IT solutions to back up data, and develop business continuity plans should natural or man-made disasters happen.

As research shows, personal resilience can be learned. But in order for this to happen, people need to learn to assess the extent of the setback with perspective of what else they have experienced. This has to be followed by adapting to the new changes and habits required to move forward, and what supporting elements they need: such as close counselling from friends and confidants, and then feedback to assess if they are adapting appropriately.

Talking about resiliency, after your triumphant return home in 1998 after the Everest expedition, you were diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome, which has made you unable to make use of your (natural) legs. Still, you have managed to climb mountains around the world? Where does your determination come from?

My determination comes from a fascination in finding out what I am able or unable to achieve, on and off the mountains. That’s how that fascination has expressed itself, in the past 15 years in a slew of organisational improvement solutions and programs. I am still interested to find out what makes a group of people succeed. I also think that we should focus on what we can change (the future), and not on what we can’t change (the past).