From the Incremental to the Monumental: Rock Climbing Tips for Business Leaders

This post was originally published on Sustainable Brands and is reprinted with permission.

Yalmaz Siddiqui, Senior Director, Environmental Strategy at Office Depot, contemplating a route

By: Jeff Mendelsohn, CEO, New Leaf Paper

When rock climbing on a challenging route, one often encounters situations where there is no way to reach the next good hold without moving beyond the security of one’s current position. These are committing moments, requiring vision, confidence, and dynamic movement. They are beyond the realm of the incremental. They are also a powerful analogy for our efforts to create a sustainable business community.

Experienced climbers integrate the principles and fundamentals of ascending a challenging cliff into their body, mind, and spirit. They build internal capacity and confidence from years of practice. This frees them from preoccupation with just hanging on, to look up, establish a clear vision of the path forward and connect that vision with action. Expert climbers almost dance on the wall, moving in sequences rather than one move at a time. It takes real commitment – the first move requiring the next and the next… There is no turning back, and there is no greater feeling.

In contrast, beginning climbers are easy to spot. They use their arms too much. Not yet trusting themselves, they grab each hold with all their might, fatiguing their arms and inviting stress and panic to their thoughts. They over-grip. Not yet tuned in to keeping their center of gravity over their feet, they fail to use their body position to conserve energy. They only have the bandwidth to see what is immediately in front of their face, only as far as the next hold.

As climbers gain experience they relax a little, learn to hold on only just enough, saving energy. They start to put moves together in sequences, find rest positions, and set their sights higher, toward the summit. They evolve toward that expert climber moving with power and grace. They start shifting their center of gravity.

Rock climbing is a powerful analogy for our efforts to create a sustainable business community. Particularly now, as more of us recognize the limitations of our efforts to date, and the full extent of the environmental and social challenges we face. We are all making incremental changes, which is both essential and good. Yet the challenges are getting larger. We have been over-gripping for too long. It’s time to take stock of what we have learned, shift our center of gravity, and make some dynamic moves.

In sustainability, the last decade has been focused on measuring and validating. We have moved from the 20th century Environmental Health & Safety perspective of being “less bad,” toward a notion of being “more good.” And some truly profound shifts have happened. Most notably, the elevation of sustainability to the C-suite, and success with reducing impacts in ways that meet short term ROI requirements and fit traditional business imperatives. We have learned a lot from the work of the last ten years.

Expert rock climbers can teach us two very important lessons. First, establish a clear and positive view of the summit. The business leaders that will move beyond incremental change – and help bring about the abundant, beautiful, and sustainable world we all want – understand the inarguable underlying principles of sustainability, build them in their core value proposition and the DNA of their business, and have the vision and commitment to make dynamic moves. Only with this level of leadership can their teams conceive and execute the sequences of moves and decisions to move beyond incremental change.

Second, integrate the principles of sustainability into every employee’s role, responsibilities and compensation. It’s time to stop trying to “jug up the wall” using only arms. Our legs are the strongest muscles in our body and aligning our center of gravity over our feet requires participation from all parts of the organization. Expert climbers move with a fluidity, confidence, and grace that comes with complete alignment of purpose and mission. The truest test of commitment to sustainability beyond incremental change is this – integrating it into every employee’s performance evaluation.

Perhaps I have beat this climbing analogy to death. But maybe that is part of the point. There are consequences to action and inaction. And whether we like it or not, we are not on a fifty foot wall in the climbing gym, we are on a real world cliff – beautiful, vast, and consequential. It’s time to take what we know deep inside and commit, to turn what could be tragedy into the ultimate joy and celebration. It’s time for graceful movements, feel the confidence and the flow, both measured and inspired, onward to the summit!

Jeff Mendelsohn founded New Leaf Paper in 1998 with the mission to drive a fundamental shift toward sustainability in the paper industry. Jeff created a positive vision for the industry, affectionately called “Pulp Non-Fiction,” and leads New Leaf Paper’s product innovation. New Leaf Paper has seen real change in the marketplace through its efforts and has inspired some of the largest paper companies in the world to pay attention to environmental concerns.

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