Summit Fever

by Stephen T. Messenger

November 30, 2021

I recently tackled Greyrock Peak Mountain Trail in Fort Collins, Colorado, a challenging 7.2-mile hike with a 2,400-foot elevation gain, topping off at 7,600 feet above sea level. It was a beautiful day in the mid-50s, and everything was perfect except my start time.

I planned to begin before noon but didn’t hit the trailhead until a little after two. I was alone, the sun was already setting, the temperatures were dropping, and the climb was mostly in a canyon which was already shady. I knew I had to be fast.

As I got closer to the peak, I became more concerned about making it back in the daylight, but honestly, I had “summit fever.” This sickness is a mountaineering term that describes the intense desire of a climber to reach the summit of a mountain regardless of the cost.

Summit fever happens everywhere, not just on the sides of mountains. Leaders feel this sickness at work and home every day. I have moments of intense desire to plow ahead and:

  • Push towards finishing a work assignment without proper resources in place
  • Completing a work task from home even when my child is looking for attention
  • Gunning the car when the traffic light turns yellow – you know what I mean…

Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, discusses how setting lofty goals can be dangerous. This thought intrigues me because, if you’ve visited this site for any amount of time, you would know that I’m a huge proponent of setting audacious goals!

I believe setting high—and sometimes unachievable—goals is a way to stretch yourself and your team to reach your collective Maximum Standard.

Burkeman looks at this differently and notes how the stress level in an organization goes up when leaders make overly ambitious goals. Your people will work hard and emotionally overinvest in a goal that might become increasingly reckless as the summit looms closer and the sun sets.

I’m a strong believer that leaders cannot be risk averse. They must push ahead and challenge the team accomplish high goals.

However, leaders also have to be “risk-aware.” They must know that there’s a point where you have to look around and assess the conditions. Whether a mountain or work project, conditions constantly change. The Army calls this “reframing.”

Reframing is when you take a critical look at where you’re at, where you’re going, and decide whether your original plan will still work (military planners would say, “the enemy has a vote” and “no plan survives first contact”). The conditions on the mountain are ever changing; you must be aware of the risks.

Summit fever ignores the increasing risk and pushes ahead at all costs. Even when budgets are destroyed and your team is exhausted, reckless leaders keep climbing thinking they can make it.

Sometimes… they can.  But at what cost?

Sometimes… they can’t. And at what cost?

For me, on the mountain of leadership, I have a tendency to push hard to complete the mission, and I don’t think that’s a fatal flaw, as long as I continuously assess the risk and cost.

On Greyrock Mountain, I could see the summit. It was less than a mile away and only 600 feet more of elevation gain. As I stood there calculating the sun and temperature, I decided the risk wasn’t worth it, the cost was too great, and surprisingly, even to myself, turned around.

The walk down was interesting. Instead of celebrating some fleeting seconds on the summit, I thought about the amazing views, reflected on what I could do better, and planned for the next time.

I enjoyed the stress-free journey down the mountain and made it to the car in plenty of time. And I learned so much more from the “failure” to summit than I would have from celebrating the success.

Leaders need to be careful of pushing ahead at all costs and fixating on the summit. Instead, assess and reframe the situation, understand the risk, make better decisions, and learn from mistakes. Sure, sometimes you have to push, but sometimes it’s alright to fail and learn.

Summit fever can be costly. Think through it next time you’re climbing the leadership mountain.

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