Learning from Altitude

In Leadership, MBA Students, Student Stories, Wharton on March 29, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Leadership Learning from Wharton Leadership Ventures and Beyond


Lei Wang, WG’03, is the first Chinese woman and the first Asian-American to climb the highest mountain on every continent and ski both the North and South Poles.  Lei came back to Wharton recently to lecture on her experiences and spent time with our Venture Fellows discussing leadership at altitude.

Being back on campus again last month for the first time since our graduation in 2003, everything looked so familiar and close to heart. The energetic bright smile on those leadership venture fellows’ faces and their insatiable desire to learn reminded me of our school days.

When I started my two-year study at Wharton in 2001, looking at the recruiting reports from career office, I confidently thought I had a clear picture for my future. Yet looking back, it was beyond my or anyone’s imagination that an “incidental” involvement in the leadership venture program totally changed my trajectory.

I started with the trip to Cotopaxi during my first year, followed by the ice climbing in Adirondacks in the second year, and Kilimanjaro, the first of my Seven Summits quest, upon graduation. During each of our leadership venture trips, our learning was more focused on team work. It’s not until I have gone down the path of pursuing my Seven Summits dream and look back over the past many years that I truly appreciate the bigger-picture learning from those experience.

Look down from top, look back from future

When I saw Cotopaxi for the first time, I thought it must be a joke to get a bookworm like me to climb a mountain of this scale. My past “climbing” experience included hills in the city parks around Beijing. I had never seen a snow mountain before, not to mention a mountain so huge.  It appeared impossible for someone with poor fitness level and zero experience. Even a simple walk at lower altitude was a struggle for me.

It took me two attempts a few days apart to finally make it. I couldn’t believe it when I finally stood on the top of the mountain when sun came up. As l went on to climb bigger and bigger mountains later, I again and again experienced the same process of from impossible to unbelievable. 

In life or career, we often run into problems that look like insurmountable mountains and we would feel overwhelmed when we look up from the bottom. Yet, if you believe you can overcome such obstacles as you have done many times before, you could easily position yourself on the top of the mountain to look down, or position yourself in the future to look back, you would see the path so clearly even if you can’t see all the details and you know you would get there if you just put one step in front of another. When you apply such “technique” as a habit in business practice, you would be thinking ahead. “If we look back 10 years or 20 years down the road, what we would say about the decision we are making now?”

Conscious leading and set a goal beyond yourself

Didn’t realize my passion for mountains until I was in my 30s, I went through a long process of soul searching. At beginning, I was confused and lost. What is the right path I should follow? What’s the meaning of life? Why would I “suddenly” change? The answer came easily when I applied the “look back from future” technique on my life and see the meaning of life from a future perspective. 

Each of us is a business entity. We come to business school to improve our competitiveness in the bigger world, and we often need to adjust the direction based on market trend or the relationship between demand and supply. Before we realize, we are “managing” instead of “leading” this business and we are busy responding to external pressure instead of listening to the internal voice.

We were successful in our past school life or career because we performed well within the norm of social expectation. But what’s the legacy you want to leave to this world when you close the chapter of your life? What kind of impact you want to have on people? Everyone has different answers, but all too often we are too busy to think about it.

Once I saw the goal is not about my reaching the summit, but about bringing the positive attitude to more people and changing their perspective on life, I gained a totally different understanding of choices and directions in life. I felt as if I just woke up and wondered if I was a conscious existence before.

For any business, when we are too focused on responding to the outside pressure and living up to near term expectation, we could easily be nearsighted and forget our bigger responsibility towards the ultimate wellbeing of this world and of future generations. Step out into the future, set a bigger goal, and lead consciously.


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