The Leadership Lessons I learned From Meru

The Shark's Fin

Over the summer, our house was full of college-age kids. Two of them happen to be mine, and then there were the extra friends who ended up staying with us for a while. Running a modified boarding house makes me quite happy, actually. From the time they started school, I’ve always encouraged my children to bring their friends around. It’s when everyone keeps coming back – for food, sleep, laundry facilities or just to pull up a chair for some thoughtful conversation – that I know I’ve done something right!

One evening over dinner we were talking about documentary films and I mentioned Free Solo, the story of the Alex Honnold, the renowned climber who scaled El Capitan without a single rope or harness. I admitted finding that movie difficult to watch, even though (spoiler alert) I knew he survived the ascent before I started.

My negative reaction tied itself to the sheer madness of it all, the unnecessary risk, his lack of fear and the pain he might have caused his family and friends. All of that turned me off from his determination to succeed. During our conversation, one of the kids mentioned Meru, another climbing documentary made in 2015 featuring a team that attempts to conquer the Shark’s Fin, a 21,000 ft. peak in the Himalayas.

That night we decided to watch it together.

From the start, Meru felt vastly different compared to Free Solo. Instead of focusing on one young man’s obsessive personal quest to achieve his goal, Meru unfolded into a beautiful story of connection, commitment to others, love, loyalty, loss, and risk-taking.

This time, the significant risks the climbers decided to take were considered in relation to their responsibilities to others.

The lead climber is Conrad Anker, a seasoned high-altitude mountaineer, known worldwide for his physical strength and climbing prowess. He was joined on Meru by two talented, millennial-aged climbers. The real story is about the juxtaposition of this man, clearly in the later stages of a storied career, and his relationship, both as a mentor and climbing partner to his younger companions.

Early on, one of the men suffers an accident causing them to leave before summiting. The heart of the movie unfolds as the trio prepares for and ultimately embarks upon their second attempt. In addition to the dramatic and beautiful cinematography, we are shown an intimate portrait of the mental and physical obstacles each man faces along the way. The three manage to honor one another despite a plethora of uncertainties they face as they propel themselves up an unforgiving wall of rock.

Of course, I couldn’t help but consider the similarities between scaling a sheer rock face and running a small business. 

All joking aside, both mountain climbing and running a business can be equally terrifying and gratifying. I was struck by Conrad’s persona, his sense of responsibility for his younger brethren, and the kind but firm way he managed their ascent. We find out that Conrad had his own, very personal, motivations to succeed on the Shark’s Fin. Thing is, he didn’t let those demons cloud his judgment. Instead, he found a way to offer his partners a generosity of spirit even in the darkest moments of the climb.

As a leader, Conrad does everything right. He sets up the challenge and then lets his team do what they need to do. Sometimes he jumps in to help, offering them advice or challenging a decision. But for the most part, he is patient, waiting and watching to make sure they stay on task and keep moving in the right direction.

Over the past five years, I think it’s the sitting back part that I have had the hardest time with at my own company. Years of feeling independent and in charge, not to mention all the accumulated experience I bring to the table, aren’t easily tossed aside in exchange for listening to someone else’s ideas or approach. Add to that the fact that I’m not a particularly patient person, nor am I programmed for taking it slow. So forcing myself to pick a different and possibly more meandering path has been a challenge, too.

Regardless, I’ve learned that leadership means stepping back and letting others go forward within the guideposts I have provided. I actively show my appreciation to my staff when they perform well and I’ll be the first to offer my critique if something doesn’t go smoothly. When it comes to bringing home a victory – in the form of a new client, a new agency partnership, or a new idea – I hope my staff knows that I don’t always have to be the only one to reach the summit.

With the metaphorical safety ropes properly embedded in the rock, clear and open communication channels established, proper sustenance to keep us energized and engaged, and a map in our minds of where we are going, I am confident that, like Conrad and his Shark’s Fin team, we will continue to find our way.

Meru has shown me that it might take a little longer than I had originally expected but that the reward will be no less sweet when we arrive.

Anne Richardson

​Anne Richardson is the owner and media director of Richardson Media Group, an agency specializing in media planning and buying, advertising campaign management and SEO.

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Anne outside the door of the Richardson Media Group office.
In addition to her role as owner and media director here at RMG, Anne authors the majority of our blog posts. Favorite topics include the entrepreneurial journey, media planning and buying, and forming productive agency partnerships.