Climbing to Lead: Leadership Lessons from Himalayan Adventures

Shoaib Naik
7 min readFeb 3, 2024

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July 2022, beneath a clear starry night at 3:16 am : “Get up and walk with the grace of a human” my trek leader called out as I struggled to move up the icy incline of KY2 (6,250m) in spite of walking on all fours. Five relentless hours of ascent led us to daunting final 450 meters — a steep unforgiving climb on hard ice slope to the summit, where each step made me think, “What have I gotten myself into?”. This wasn’t what I had in mind when I signed up for the expedition — negotiating a steep hard ice slope. Even with crampons on, the looming possibility of slipping to your death was a real-time possibility. The next 3 to 4 hours promised to be treacherous. In that moment of fear, I found myself mentally penning my obituary, only to be interrupted by the call of the trek leader, “Get up or go home!”

The starry night of Kang Yatse

Climbing mountains doesn't come as a second nature to me but when I started doing it, I just fell in love with it. Over the years since I started climbing, I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with some great people — my trek guides, leaders, support staff. They taught me some of the valuable lessons I know today about leadership in a high stress and high pressure environment without caring for the title they carried. Lessons which can be only taught in the real world away from the written word on the idea of leadership.

  1. The Real Title

The only way to gain true respect on the mountain is through impactful actions and genuine kindness. The people who we as a group of amateur mountaineers ended up respecting where those who demonstrated their capabilities and leadership through tangible actions. In essence, our respect for them was more about their character and behavior than the title they carried or the experience they had. People who pushed us through the darkest of the nights, or the kind guide who gave me one of his hand gloves when we were close to 6000m battling an extreme weather or the sherpa who pushed us to have faith in our abilities to reach the summit, all showed us what true leadership really meant.

Not all superheros wear capes

Respect doesn’t come by having a title but how you treat or what you do for others.

2. Lot of self reflection and humility

Mountains have a unique way of dealing with ego and overconfidence. Both bow down to the awe-inspiring scale and grandeur of the mountain. The people who I climbed with let the quality and impact of their work show the skills and value they have, which fostered a genuine sense of appreciation. Growth without self reflection and humility is something you rarely find in the mountains as it plays a key role for those aspiring to climb great heights. Hence it came as no surprise when the seasoned sherpa who had climbed mountains like the Everest & Kanchenjunga merely said when asked about his previous climbs “My past experience would matter only if it helps you in your journey to reach the summit.” Ego doesn’t bode well with leadership.

The humble sherpa — On the icy slopes of KY2

Be humble and let your work speak to the people.

3. Learning and Sharing

The idea that knowledge and skills should be generously shared with others is one of the keys to being a great leader. Sharing creates a cycle of learning and growth, benefiting individuals and community as a whole.As mountaineers, one always keeps gaining knowledge about navigating challenging terrains, handling extreme weather, or using specialized gear; it becomes valuable to share these experiences with fellow climbers. If I talk about knowing the mountains , it’s all because of the trek leaders with whom I have climbed. They generously shared their years of experience and wisdom, not only helped me in the mountains but also in my personal & professional life. They always advised me to keep passing it forward, saying just as the mountains are continuous,so is the journey of learning & sharing.

What you learn, find a way to give back. Nothing is ever yours.

4. Teamwork is dreamwork

Have you ever wondered how people survive climbing some of the highest peaks in the world? It’s by achieving success together through guidance and leadership. Whenever I think about two of my most difficult climbs, the first thought that comes to my mind is that we would have never made it without the team (Logistics/Support/Kitchen/Climb)we had on those climbs. They kept changing their role, depending on the situation and the weather conditions, working tirelessly with a smile on their face. Seeing them at work made me believe that real leadership is about making sure the team succeeds and not just an individual. A true leader always puts the people ahead of personal pride & ego.

The dream teams

Winning together by showing the way ahead

5. Perfectionism — the bane of leadership

One of the hardest life lessons I learned was when we found ourselves turning back a mere 100 meters from the summit of Stok Kangri (6,125m). After ten hours of grueling & treacherous climb in bad weather, to turn back 100 meters from your goal takes a lot of courage and a clear head. I wasn’t the one who had the clarity to make that decision; it was our experienced trek leader who took charge. But I was the one to get mad at him for choosing to turn back. In that moment, at an altitude of 6000 meters, he calmly handled the situation. Later, when we made it back to the base camp, he explained his decision to turn back. It made me realise that I hadn’t rationally thought about the inherent risks nor had the clarity needed to be pragmatic and grounded in safety. Instead, I was driven by an unattainable quest for perfectionism — to reach the summit at all costs.

The journey never ends — below the summit of Stok Kangri

My trek leader gave me valuable advice to learn from this experience, as in the mountains, even those with setbacks contribute to ones growth. It took me another four years to fully understand the true meaning & depth of his advice. In June 2022, we successfully climbed and reached the KY2 (6,250m) summit, which wouldn’t have been possible for me without the experience gained from the setback of Stok Kangri.

The sun shines bright — Summit of KY2

Don’t strive for perfectionism; strive for excellence

6. Dreams & Inspiration

Whenever I go climbing, I think of all the people who gave me the confidence to dream big and inspired me to be more. My first trek leader and now a good friend who taught me that climbing a mountain is about being yourself and putting your ego aside. He showed me mountaineering isn’t only about building up physical strength and technical skills but also mental resilience and a deep respect for the mountain. Whether it’s summiting a challenging peak or making it through a difficult trek, dreaming big involves instilling a sense of adventure and pushing the possible boundaries to what more you can do. In the end, as a leader, he has inspired me to keep pushing boundaries by fostering within me a passion for adventure in the challenging and awe-inspiring world of mountains.

The world is yours when you dream big

Inspire people to dream more, learn more, and be more

While I was physically and mentally drained, the trek leader stood tall like the mountain, with calmness mimicking the cold starry night, patiently looking at us to climb up. As soon as the trek leader had helped me stand up and walk, he said something that would not only put me at peace but also ease my way to the summit. “If you fall, I am there to catch you. If you are confused, I am there to guide you. If you make mistakes, I am there to teach you. I can only be a guide showing the way as it’s you who must ultimately walk the path to the summit.”

The Leader shows the way — On the icy slopes of KY2

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Shoaib Naik

Finding the "purpose", exploring the world one step at a time, learning through practice