People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” So said the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. In the pursuit of the extraordinary, I’ve always believed a business leader and a mountaineer share certain traits. In order to succeed and reach their goals, both must be determined, focused, brave, sceptical and understand the importance of teamwork.
Hillary, the man who conquered Everest in 1953, was a leader and innovator who was inspired by the idea of adventure. He was a real model for our leaders of tomorrow. But it’s the fact that Hillary remained modest and responsible towards society and the environment that makes him inspirational to today’s business leaders.
Despite being one of the twentieth century’s greatest mountaineers and explorers, throughout his life Hillary was always amazed by the international acclaim he received following his famous expedition. “Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities,” said Helen Clark, then prime minister of New Zealand, at the time of his death in 2008. “In reality, he was a colossus.”
And it’s true; Hillary climbed 10 other peaks in the Himalayas between 1956 and 1965, went to the South and North Poles, received many awards and had countless organisations, schools and streets named after him. Yet he was always most proud of his remarkable charity work.
He devoted much of his time and energy to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal who had been of inestimable value to early mountaineers and explorers in the region. Their expertise in mountaineering, hardiness and unique experience at high altitudes were extremely important to climbers. Hillary developed a huge respect and concern for the Sherpa people and desperately wanted to improve their welfare. He raised money to develop schools, hospitals and airfields in their remote region. He said: “I think the most worthwhile things I’ve done have not been on the mountains or in the Antarctic, but doing projects with my friends, the Sherpa people. The 27 schools we’ve now established, the hospitals – those are the things I would like to be remembered for.”
Over half a century ago, Hillary realised the importance of the future – its people and their environment. As more explorers came to the Himalayas, the environment degraded and Hillary was most concerned about the area. He convinced the Nepalese government to bring in laws to protect the forest and pronounce part of the area around Everest as a national park (known as Sagarmatha National Park today and set in the Khumu region of Nepal, it covers an area of 1,148 sq km). It was thanks to Hillary and his efforts to get the government of New Zealand involved that the Nepalese got the funding they needed for this project.
Like Hillary, leaders today in both business and business schools have changed their priorities and now accord more curriculum importance to social responsibility and sustainability. As the recent financial crisis has highlighted, it’s vital that longer-term thinking plays a greater role in business. We are all concerned by what is happening around us and more and more people, like Hillary, want to do something to give back to society and to help ensure the future.
More than half a century ago, few public figures were investing in the future of others or spending their precious time and money on a charitable cause. Hillary was quite an exception – an innovator and an intelligent risk taker. His achievement was to encourage investment in a region and its people with an eye on the future. He was a down-to-earth man who set his mind on something and did everything he could to achieve it. As he said himself, “You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things – to compete. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated.”
Today, leaders need to question conventional thinking and not be afraid to speak against the crowd. We want to develop leaders who enforce a business culture that better serves the community and society. As I meet current and future business leaders, I am pleased to see how many care deeply about things like the environment, and the developing world. The leaders of today are – like Hillary – people who are well-rounded and able to balance their professional and personal lives. They are leaders who want to make an impact but they also want their impact to be lasting and valuable.
As the dean of a business school, it is my job to mould tomorrow’s leaders; leaders who not only want to develop viable businesses but who also genuinely want to contribute to a better society. For me, Edmund Hillary is a model of all these things.
Frank Brown is dean of Insead
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