The quest to conquer Mt. Everest, stereotypically one of the boldest ambitions and enterprise a team can undertake on this Earth, provides a classic illustration of the contrasting dynamics of leadership and management.

It seems like climbing a mountain is one of the top ten overused business metaphors so I’ll happily use it here.  In this analogy, a leader is the one who charges up the slope, but dies on the hill from lack of oxygen; a manager is the one who never leaves base camp because they are checking and rechecking the oxygen bottles. 

In fact, this illustration is more than just a metaphor but a reasonable description of what happened in the history of conquering Everest.  As Michael Useem and Jerry Useem write in the 27 October 2003 Fortune article “The Board That Conquered Everest”:

            “Fifty years ago, Sir Edmond Hilary and Tenzing Norgay confronted the mountain, braved its dangers, and made it to the top through sheer talent and will.  It’s an inspiring tale – yet it obscures a deeper one.  The hidden story is less classically heroic – it involves an unassuming manager and, believe it or not, a board of directors – but it reveals heaps more about the nature of great achievements.”

They go on to describe the hero-in-waiting who seemed destined to conquer the peak first, England’s leading climber, Eric Shipton.

            “Shipton had been central to four of England’s seven Everest expeditions…Shipton’s lightly equipped improvisational climbs had shown entrepreneurial flair.  But his inattention to detail and planning was notorious; one trip he even forgot to pack his backpack…So just six weeks after choosing Shipton, [the Himalayan Committee, an affiliate of the Royal Geographical Society] did the unthinkable:  It turned around and fired him…Shipton’s replacement:  a career military man whose very name conveyed lack of dash…Col. John Hunt was the very picture of the modern professional manager.  A demon for logistics, he specified that each box of rations contain 29 tins of sardines.  His strategy – soon to become standard in mountaineering – called for an army of Sherpas, porters and yaks that would methodically move up the mountain, shuttling supplies to ever higher camps.  Hunt gave the human element systematic attention as well.”

Applying both the leadership principles of risk taking ambition and risk mitigating administration were both critical to conquering one of the ultimate human undertakings.