The Business of Belaying - A High Ropes Course Analogy of Effective Leadership

be.lay –verb (used with object)
Mountain Climbing.
a. to secure (a person) by attaching to one end of a rope.
b. to secure (a rope) by attaching to a person or to an object offering stable support.

(Dictionary.com)

The high elements in adventure training have been used very successfully in teambuilding programmes worldwide. From the balancing beam to the Postman’s Walk, these obstacles, suspended 10 metres off the ground, has served as powerful reminders that fear can be overcome with the support and encouragement of every team member. However, if we could just take a closer look at the entire process of belaying in the conduct of a high ropes course, its application in a corporate environment could not be more obvious.

Before a climber can start his ascent towards the obstacle, a belay team would have to be set in place. In a typical static belay system, the climber would be attached to one end of a safety rope and at the other end, a belay team, would be responsible for the climber’s safety. In order for this belay system to be successful, every member of the team must perform his role with vigilance and care.

With the team ready, the climber starts his way up. Fearful and uncertain, he pulls himself up slowly towards the obstacle. He does not know how he is going to overcome this 10-metre challenge; neither does he know what added challenges might lay ahead. Although the climber does not know how he is going to conquer this fear, he knows he will.

Finally, after several hesitant steps, he makes it to the top.

However, what lies ahead of him now is a 15-metre long wooden beam, perched along the tree lines. He knows he has to walk across this 1-foot wide beam in order to get to the other side and there is no turning back. Looking down below to his team on the ground, he realises that if he were to fall, at least his team is there to guarantee his safety. The team cheers as words of encouragement and support echo from the ground.

Focusing only on his objective, a moment of silence engulfs the climber. After taking a deep breath, he takes his first step. Soon, after taking each step with certainty and belief, the climber makes it to the other side successfully, amidst triumphant roars.

This may just be a characteristic high ropes scenario but how does a seemingly simple act of belaying relate to that of an effective corporate organisation?

The answer: the relationship between a leader (climber) and his team. As theorised by leadership gurus, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, an exemplary leader must display 5 distinct leadership practices.

1) Model The Way
2) Inspire A Shared Vision
3) Challenge The Process
4) Enable Others To Act
5) Encourage The Heart

As with all leaders, they are but extraordinary people.

A leader is merely an ordinary man/woman doing the same things but with extra-ordinary methods.

A leader, like the climber, would always be at the lead, the first to attempt to conquer new grounds.

However, it is only human to be fearful of the unknown. Fear may just have paralysed the climber, who was depicted earlier, and allow trepidation to overwhelm him. But if he does not make that first step, if he does not “model the way”, if the leader does not exhibit that extraordinary courage, no one else would. Likewise, if an organisation’s leader does not brave the front and break new grounds, the organisation would be stagnant and may suffer from a cascading disease, which I term as “corporate paralysis”.

Corporate paralysis starts from the leader and once he gets infected, his followers would have no escape from it. If fear engulfs the leader, so will fear engulf the team. It is a disease so severe that eventually, in the long run, the organisation may crumble and collapse. No doubt it is not easy being a leader. The first 4 leadership practices are indeed hard to adhere and practiced.

However, the last element of Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices - Encourage the heart, would essentially be a 2-way process, played in part by both the team and the leader. How?

Let us first scrutinise the part of the leader (climber) as he or she saunters across the balancing beam. The very act of crossing the beam would have, in effect, “encourage the hearts” of the team, sub-consciously convincing them that the seemingly impossible can be made possible. However, the act of belaying, which is technically defined as a safety process that ensures stable support, can also be figuratively defined as a process that encourages emotional support. In my opinion, the leader must know that he is not alone.

In the face of uncertainty, he has the support and encouragement of his team that would help him conquer the challenge. Even if he were to fall, he would still have the team behind him, holding tightly to an emotional safety rope, which ensures that trust and support would still be present even in the event of failure.

The President has his Cabinet, the skipper has his crew, and the manager has his subordinates. Every leader has a team but a leader must realise that he or she is “a part” of the team and not “apart” from it. We cheer when our leader succeeds, as though the task was successfully completed by us. But when the leader falls short of the target, we must still recognise that, in reality, we have fallen short as a team.

“No man is an island”. I’m sure everyone has heard of this. Likewise, no leader is alone.


Article by Andy Pan, the Director of Training at Right Impact Training and the author of Unleash The Public Speaker In You!.

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