Sir Edmund Hillary dies: What entrepreneurs can learn from his leadership

The death of Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary this morning marks the passing of not just a great New Zealander, but also a natural leader who had many lessons for entrepreneurs. NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark announced today that Hillary had died this morning at the age of 88.

She says the passing of Hillary was a profound loss to New Zealand. Sir Edmund became the first person to stand on top of Mt Everest, the world’s highest peak, on 2 June 1953. He had succeeded where others had failed, and many had lost their lives trying.

Hillary, had lived as a bee keeper in Auckland before becoming the world’s most famous explorer, went on to lead expeditions to the South Pole and other remote corners of the globe. He also typified the best type of leader who after his success spent much of his life giving back, through focusing on environmental issues and assisting the Nepalese people.

Here are some of his thoughts from interviews on leadership, team building and resilience:

What’s the proportion of skill, planning, leadership and luck?

Sir Edmund Hillary: You need all those things of course. You certainly need planning and you certainly need a degree of skill and fitness, and there’s no question at all that you need a little bit of luck. People often say you make your own luck, and I think probably 90% of the luck is self-created, but there is that 10%. You’ve got to have things right at the right time. If you’re heading for the summit, you’ve got to have a reasonable day for it. And if the weather doesn’t treat you right, nobody’s going to get there.

I guess you’d call that luck. But if you plan things, maybe you’re organised so you can wait for another day and put in your push to the summit. But I do believe that a little bit of luck is a good thing to have.

Are those the important qualities then, for achievement, that you would say are important in anything one might aspire towards?

Yes. If I’m selecting a group, the first thing one has to look for is a record of achievement. It may be modest achievement, but people have shown that they can persist, they can carry out objectives and get to a final solution. If they can do that on small things, there’s a very good chance that they’ll perform well on big things at the same time.

And I’m a great believer in a really good sense of humour. If you have someone in an expedition who’s reasonably competent and has a great sense of humour, they’re a very stimulating factor for the whole team, and they play a very important psychological part in the success of the team.

You’ve used the word “fear” and “mediocre” several times. You have written that the mediocre can succeed and the fearful can achieve or accomplish. Will you talk about that?

I do remember writing that, and that’s just about the way I’ve felt about things. In many ways, I’m basically a very mediocre person. I know I’ve been afraid on many occasions, but I also know that if your abilities are fairly modest, there are still ways in which you can use them effectively.

I think, for instance, that planning what you’re doing, slowly and carefully working out how you’re going to meet problems if they arise, can be enormously helpful. If an emergency arises, you’ve already thought out the type of thing that you can do and the type of decisions you can make, the type of orders you can give, and overcome that problem and get through.

I always have, in my expeditions, people who are academically far cleverer than I am, and even technically, far more competent. So if you want to lead an expedition, in a sense, you’ve got to keep ahead of them. These bright, competent characters you have with you are marvelous to have on the expedition.

And I’ve always found you can do that by, each night, when you go to bed, just let your mind dwell on the likely things that may happen next day, and think out carefully the sort of decisions that might be necessary to make in order to have the program carried through.

So next day, when something happens, you’re the one that’s thought about it and you’re the one who has the ideas. Whereas all the brighter ones haven’t spent too much time thinking about it. They have to produce it quickly out of their minds and sometimes their ideas, of course, are very good, but for a mediocre person like me, if you pre-planned it and thought it out, then you can give sound decisions on pretty short notice.

The qualities you mentioned, soundness and mature judgement, they’re the qualities of leadership. So what you’re really talking about is how you developed as a leader.

There are some people who are natural leaders, who have the ability to think quickly or choose the right decisions at the right moment. But I think there are an awful lot of us who have to learn how to be a leader, and in actual fact, I believe that most people, if they really want to, can become competent leaders.

I think I was the prime example of someone with relatively modest abilities, but I think I learned to become a reasonably competent leader. Even practice is quite a useful attribute in this respect. As you do more expeditions and more adventures, you get more experience and you know more clearly what to do in moments of emergency. But I certainly never regarded myself as a natural leader.

I can always remember, when I was at high school we had a school sort of army battalion and because, at that time, I was one of the larger boys, I was appointed sergeant of the number one platoon, and I was always absolutely petrified that when I was meant to turn the platoon left or turn it right, I was really actually hopeless at knowing quite what to do.

But fortunately, my platoon, who were really all the misfits in the school, the larger misfits, they stood by me, and some of them were quite good at knowing when to turn left or turn right. So whatever command I gave, they would do the right thing. We were a pretty good platoon as a consequence although, at the time, I felt an absolute idiot.

Some of the suggestions I made, my platoon ignored and did the right thing. But maybe I had a good rapport with them and, as a consequence, we were working together pretty much as a team, and we usually did the right thing. But I certainly was completely, often, at a loss as to what was the correct thing to do, but because of the feeling that I had with my platoon, we usually ended up by doing what was right.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments