Watch any mountain master and you will see a seeming contradiction. They move slowly with everything they do, yet they seem to get up and down the mountain quickly and efficiently.
Many years ago, my friend Joe and I, as 20-something year old males, found ourselves on the slopes of Denali climbing up from 14,000 feet to high camp at 17,000 feet. We rushed, setting a pace that we might use on an approach to an ice climb in our home range, the Canadian Rockies. In our hurry we found that we had to stop often to catch our breath in the rarified air. Each time we stopped a group of older European climbers slowly and smoothly glided past us. At the end of the day they reached camp first, and had a cup of tea to offer up when we arrived. This is an old story from all of our childhoods about two animals.
“Slow is smooth” ultimately comes into its own in highly technical, multi-day rock climbing. Rope systems can easily get into a cluster when one goes too fast. Moving slowly but steadily with the systems allows one to clearly see the next step needed, and the systems can be built to accommodate. Simply unflaking a rope one coil at a time may seem slow but it is efficient. Often, those climbers new to rope handling will impatiently drop the coils on the ground which always ends in a mess that takes a long time to sort out. Rope handling masters manipulate one loop at a time with an ease that is artful and ultimately efficient.
Recently, I drove up to Bow Summit in the Canadian Rockies the night before a scheduled ski traverse of the Wapta Icefield. I stood outside of my car and listened to the mountains. There were no obvious signs of avalanches but there was a whole host of new snow. The mountains were not inviting me on this trip. I rescheduled, which was hard—really hard. That week, the Rockies went through an historic avalanche cycle. I don't have special powers of prediction, but I am learning to simply stop and listen. We all have this tool at our fingertips. It is simply about slowing down and sinking into the real situation to hear what it has to say. When we do, we have access to a wisdom that is there waiting to inform.
The value in learning these lessons is intrinsic to climbing and mountaineering. However, their application has incredible power and value in business or day-to-day life. We both see and hear more when we go slowly. Any leader worth their salt steps outside of the buzz of the hive to sense what is needed. Steve Jobs used to go for long walks up at The Dish at Stanford University. The time and space was always informative for him.
Great leaders go slowly so they can see what is coming; then they take decisive action.