Leaving the Mountaintop

Leadership is always clearest and compelling on the mountaintop of vision. You see as far as your mind will let you. The expanse is comprehensive, invigorating, and calming almost impossibly at the same time. Sometimes you’ve worked tirelessly to get there, thinking of nothing else but the summit and its beyond. But no sooner than you take your first step back down, leaving the mountaintop, your mind descends faster than your feet can carry you. And back in the valley below, you find that no one will ever understand what you saw – unless you take them there.

When I was fourteen and a newly minted Eagle Scout, I went on a defining journey “out west” to hike about 60 miles and climb a category 4 mountain over the course of two weeks. It was exciting on the one hand because I was a driven, goal-minded performer who loved the outdoors. On the other hand, being a Lowcountry boy from South Carolina, it was further across the national map than I had any concept of at the time.

The journey was long and required pacing. At some point, almost each explorer among us took their turn to feel exhausted and like they needed to stop. Each time, another of us would guide them forward with a helping hand, some well-received humor, or a little tough talking.

When we finally reached the summit of this mountain, I was enthralled. It was every ounce of reward and more. The horizon continued beyond my vision in every direction I looked. I wanted to continue on and climb the next peak, and the next one, and the ones after that. As tired as I’d grown taking the last steps to the top, I now felt none of it.

Every good thing must come to an end or next chapter, however, and so soon we turned to begin the journey back to base camp. It occurred to me in that moment that I might never be back in that spot, seeing what I was seeing, again. I’d taken a picture with my disposable Kodak, but I just knew a picture wouldn’t be the same. So I looked around and picked up the sturdiest rock I could manage – about the size of a cantelope – to take back as a reminder of this breathtaking experience.

“You’re going to carry that big ‘ole thing all the way back?” Someone asked.

“Sure,” I responded. Of course I could lug it back – it was worth it.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be illegal or at least poor practice taking natural artifacts from an esteemed park…Regardless, no more than 10 or 15 minutes down the trail, I’d lost the stamina to continue carrying what now felt like a boulder down the mountain, and so I left it beside the winding trail marking the way to the summit.

The way back was lighter but not without toil and consequence. Our scoutmaster companion, who had been noble in planning and cautioning us to prepare for the trek and stay hydrated, unfortunately passed out from dehydration and had to be retrieved by emergency personnel. Our squad divided so that our faster scouts could high-tail it back to base camp and summon help. It was an adventure!

Needless to say, by the time we reached base camp, and eventually home, the mountaintop was already a distant memory. Whole new adventures had transpired between the summit and saying goodbye. We went, we saw, we conquered, and we got back on the bus. Perhaps we were changed within having experienced such a journey, but we realized it very little at the time.


The Descent Effect

In my work and involvements, I’ve often taken leaders and their teams up onto a mountaintop – either physical, proverbial, or both. It helps to gain perspective, let go of the day to day without reception, and create space to see a further future state that they want – or need – to achieve. More than a destination though, it’s an experience that transforms each human and their compatriots along the way. That transformation is my passion.

However, there is always an invisible adversary on the trail. Despite that going up can be uncomfortable, require training, or take time, it’s actually the return that is most dangerous. Climbers and hikers know this for themselves. For leaders, the impact is farther reaching.

The leadership descent effect is a colliding force from two sides, and it effectively crushes strategy and possibility for nearly every leader who has climbed the mountain of vision.

One element is the descending mind of the leader themselves, which loses direct contact with the vision and immediately begins thinking of matters back in the valley. They think of people, to-do lists, budgets, travel schedules, a hot shower, and whether they still prefer wintergreen toothpaste over spearmint. Once they lose the picture and the elevation, they lose the clarity and conviction they enjoyed moments before.

The second element – a far more powerful, though passive one – is the innocent, ignorant incomprehension of the vision demonstrated by people in the valley below. However joyfully they may welcome their comrade back from the mountaintop, and however eager they may be to hear the tales, they will always be hopelessly cut off from the real vision. It’s not their fault, of course. They weren’t there!

A tale of two mountains

Two very different leadership teams stand out to me where the descent effect has manifest most evidently. While they resembled similar organizations, their paths were distinct. Both teams scaled the mountaintop. Both had great epiphanies. Both had A-team talent. The descent was the difference.

Upon leaving the mountain, one team immediately reconvened back at home and set out to prioritize all that they had decided. They clarified what they had dreamed. They took ownership of the path forward. Then they did a very important thing: they recreated a version of their experience for the next level of leadership. They didn’t build a mountain or teach anyone to hike, of course. Nor did they show a PowerPoint with incredible pictures and quotes from the CEO. They recreated a mountaintop experience for their people closer to home. They showed people the journey they were embarking on, created tangible examples of the future state, and they welcomed them into the leadership tent. This team succeeded in getting to their goal, albeit after a great deal of effort and persistence.

The second team, leaving the mountain around the same time, went back and dove into their equally important current-state challenges. They worked better as a team than they ever had before. That was certain. But nothing they envisioned on the mountaintop of vision ultimately came to life in this chapter of their journey. The path was available, but they didn’t have the time or resources. They were busy, financially constrained, preparing for board meetings, and the list went on. 

A year went by.

One day the phone rang, and I was happy to see it was one of these leaders with whom I’d become close. 

“We need some help,” they said. 

“Well we all do!” I responded, “but yes tell me more.”

“Well, I don’t know how to put this. But all of that work we did on the mountaintop…it just…kind of died. No one got it. We had all these things we’d come up with and talked about, but it wasn’t actionable. And along with that, it was like we were speaking another language.”

The descent effect.

“Well I have some ideas,” I said. “But what do you want to do about it now? It sounds like everyone on the team feels the same way you do.”

“Yes, they do. The thing is, we know we can still do everything we said. We just need to make it make sense. And we can’t wait any longer. We said things like we didn’t have the resources or time or money, blah blah blah, but ironically we’re losing money and wouldn’t be if we in this position if we’d done all this in the first place. People first need to see that though.”

“We need to recreate the mountaintop,” I offered. “Or the version people will understand. One that is relevant to them, achievable for them, or at least one that will prepare them for the next mountaintop.”


There was nothing inherently wrong with that team. They didn’t lack the ability to succeed. They just needed to get back on the path. That phone call was the beginning of a memorable return to the mountaintop – and the start of a new one.

Sustaining the mountaintop of vision

There are three ways to counter the descent effect and sustain the value of having reached the mountaintop of vision. I’ve seen it in health care, in other industries, and with senior leaders just about anywhere in the world.

  • Transform yourself – don’t just remember the experience. Live by it. Create habits that serve as cues and reminders of what you saw. Go back and climb again. When I’m not on a plane, in another state, or another part of the world, I drive to the office in my 1997 land cruiser with oversized wheels and a Maasai rungu in the center console. Why? I’m not fording a suburban washout. But it reminds me of who I am, and more often than not I act accordingly as a result.
  • Guide others – take others on the journey with you. Nearly every year, I take leaders to a mountaintop, to a savanna, to another environment where people live and work differently than they do – even if in exactly the same trade. Or I take them to where I’ve been and see what I’ve seen. Because if I don’t, I know that there will always be a gap between the vision and their reality. They may trust me to the ends of the earth – God bless them – and be willing to dive into the unknown, but they won’t truly understand what I, they, or we could see as possible until they’ve lived it.
  • Establish a legacy – the reality is that the further a vision gets beyond you and the immediate circle you impact, it can’t be sustained by repeatedly taking everyone back up the mountain. Not everyone can or ever will. But you can create a version that they can experience and achieve closer to where they are. This is without question the hardest thing to do. It takes time, energy, commitment. But it’s worth it because it will enable the vision to outlive you. And that’s a legacy.

How do you do each of those three well? We’ll explore that in other tales.



There are places in the world that truly take your breath away. The escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, the Alps leaning down into Lago di Como, Lone Mountain looking over the Gallatin forests of Montana, Mount Fuji proudly wearing its white cap. To climb any such height is certainly no easy task. I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to explore some of what I consider to be these most gratifying reaches. Every time, the view was worth it. And the views provided theories, wonders, possibilities, plans, ah ha’s, and breakthroughs beyond count. But those outcomes were only ever mine unless they were experienced with others.

  • What is a mountaintop in your life that you continue to live for, or in reflection of?
  • Think about a part of your strategy, a plan, or an initiative that people seem to have the hardest time understanding – or moreover, that they may be resisting most. How might they act differently if they could experience what you did to get there?
  • If people could go back and climb the proverbial mountaintop with you, what might they also learn about you on the way that they don’t already know? What’s keeping you from sharing that with them now?

The mountaintop of vision is uniquely valuable for the leader who reaches it. But sharing that experience with others is powerful and priceless. Never let leaving the mountaintop, however inevitable, become the end of the story.

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