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The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Dr. Jacinta Jimenez is Stanford University-trained licensed Doctor of Clinical Psychology and Board Certified Coach. She is the Head of Coaching at BetterUp.
Everything is quiet, except for two noises: the rhythmic sound of the four Tanzanian men’s feet hitting the ground in unison as they run, and my inhales of sweet oxygen from the mask on my face. I am very weak but somehow, I muster enough energy to hold on so I don’t fall off the back of the porter, who is carrying me while simultaneously running at full speed down the tallest mountain in Africa.
As I try to stay calm by focusing on the beads of sweat dripping down my porter’s neck I think to myself, How did I get here? Just a few hours ago I was 19,431 feet up looking down at the world with 30 other women on International Women’s Day. How did I let this happen to me?
Unlike many people who climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, I am not here to tell you about what it was like to get to the top, I want to talk about the experience of coming down, knowing one’s limits, and dropping the ball, especially in relation to women’s leadership. As Head of Coaching at BetterUp, this is an issue that’s very near and dear to my heart.
As a psychologist and coach, I’ve had the honor of working with some of the most intelligent, hard-working, conscientious female leaders — many of which are CEOs and SVPs. What I’ve heard from them is exactly what I did to myself on Mount Kilimanjaro — stretching beyond one’s limit to get to the top at a rigorous pace, and then trying to deal with the consequences after arriving.
Getting to the top of what is already an unequal playing field has resulted in women being told they have to push harder, be more aggressive, and work more. These messages come in many forms, including what are supposed to be ‘inspirational’ women-centric ads. Unfortunately, what no one tells you is that being a senior leader means existing in a high-altitude, low-oxygen work environment.
Arriving at the top sets off an almost immediate and rapid descent in personal well-being.
Research has found that almost half of executives last less than 18 months following an external promotion or job change. Evidently, arriving at the top sets off an almost immediate and rapid descent in personal well-being.The demands of senior leadership snuff out the time required for adequate recovery, exercise, healthy meal planning and meaningful connection, otherwise, the very foundation of peak performance.
We need a model that encourages sustainability, so that when we do make it to the top, we have the energy, oxygen, and bandwidth to do the great work we came there to do.
Yes, larger changes certainly need to happen to improve gender parity in the workplace, but in the meantime, we need to recalibrate the old message of “you have to work harder to get ahead” and embrace a new model. We need a model that encourages sustainability, so that when we do make it to the top, we have the energy, oxygen, and bandwidth to do the great work we came there to do.
I am so appreciative ofArianna Huffington’s openness with her own personal story of burning out at the top and of Tiffany Dufu’s call for women to Drop the Ball. Their stories emphasize that although hard work is something we as women need and are willing to embrace, both men and women need to reevaluate our ideas about what it takes to make it to the top and actually continue to thrive once we’re there.
The only way we can achieve anything meaningful is if we chart a sustainable course. With all this said, my experience of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro left me with a much more profound message than I had come there to find. Specifically, 4 major keys for “high altitude” hiking stand out:
- Acclimatize Gradually. Throughout the hike, our guides would sing out “Pole Pole” – pronounced Polay Polay – which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. To get there faster, we were encouraged to move slower. A slower pace allows the body to acclimate to higher altitude environments. A rush to the top will almost invariably cause altitude sickness and slow a climber down. To innovate and chart one’s unique professional journey to the top, leaders must maintain healthy amounts of mental and emotional energy along the way. They must pace themselves with the steadiness their dreams and ambitions necessitate.
- Maintain solid support. About 5 minutes into the darkness of summit night, my rental poles broke, which resulted in me having to hike the final and hardest 7-hour stretch in pure darkness, without poles. If I had not had my Sherpa to lean on and the voices of the other women around me to guide me up the mountain, there would have been no way I could have made it. Unfortunately, much talk about great leadership primarily focuses on how leaders support, inspire, and elevate others; but what about making sure you have enough support? Climbing to the top alone is not realistic; it is essential that women invest in becoming mentors andpowerful allies for one another. As an African proverb that I learned while in Tanzania says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
- Embrace self-compassion. As we climbed higher and higher, I could feel my altitude sickness symptoms worsening. I also kept noticing how my internal voice was urging me to minimize my nausea and “tough it out.” I wish I had not listened to that voice and instead practiced more self-care, specifically,self-compassion. Pioneering self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff has found that self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience and more accurate self-concepts. It is important for women leaders to embrace self-compassion to counterbalance the “you must work harder and faster” messages that we’ve been hearing our entire lives.
- Lead high but rest low. As I reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro I gasped for air as I strained to mutter the words, “I made it. I’m here.” Leadership positions are truly low oxygen environments, and as I experienced, you cannot stay up there very long or you will lose function. Women in leadership roles need to come down, take breaks, get oxygen, and rest to stay at the top.Rest is imperative for sustainable leadership, but sadly it is too often overlooked. Women leaders can only realize maximum performance when periods of rest are scheduled uncompromisingly.
It is important for women leaders to embrace self-compassion to counterbalance the “you must work harder and faster” messages that we’ve been hearing our entire lives.
Don’t let the picture in this article fool you. Yes, I made it to the top, but my experience was much more humbling than victorious. And truth be told, even as I write this, the achiever in me (the one who still buys into the “you need to work harder” message) feels a twinge of judgment for not having had an A-Okay experience. But thankfully, I’m learning to laugh at the voice with irreverence and channel self-compassion instead.
I urge all women who are striving for a senior leadership role in a company to challenge the inner voice that tells them success will come if they only work harder. I don’t want to see other women in the position I was in on International Women’s Day, heading down a mountain I had dreamed of climbing for many years feeling completely drained and very afraid for my well-being. Women belong at the top, and we deserve to embrace sustainable ways to get there and stay there. Telling women to simply to try harder at a game in which the rules are stacked against them will not make for successful summits.