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Trust Is The Lifeline

Adventurers and business leadership experts, Amy Posey and Kevin Vallely explain how both in climbing and in business, trust is everything.

Teetering on a tiny foothold 1,000ft above the ground, I stare down at my partner and yell in the most composed voice I can muster.

“Watch me here Peter. I’m not sure about this!”

“I got you, Kev”, he hollers back, “You got this!”

Peter is holding the rope I’m attached to – he’s my belayer. This thin piece of nylon between us defines trust and is the only thing that allows me to move in this terrifying place. If I fall, Peter will catch me. I know he will, my life depends on it.

My leg trembles as I ease my full weight onto the tiny foothold. “Watch me,” I mumble as loud as I can. Yelling will throw me off balance. Committing everything to the tiny foothold I carefully reach upwards to a handhold I’ve been spying for minutes. “I’m almost there” I think to myself, but my foot feels like it’s slipping. “Almost…just don’t move my foot,” I tell myself. “Almost” My foot is slipping. “Crap…almost…GOT IT!!”

“YAHOOOOOOOO!!!” I scream as all my fear and anxiety pour out. The vast expanse of the Squamish Valley echoes faintly in reply but soon gazes back in cold silence, apathetic to this game of trust and commitment I play.

I pull myself up onto the ledge, set my anchor and clip myself in. I take a deep breath and peer over the ledge to Peter far below.

“You’re ON BELAY Peter!” I holler as loud as I can. “Climb when ready!!”

There are few activities that demand the absolute trust between individuals like that of rock climbing. The rope attaching you to your teammate is metaphorically and literally your life line. If you didn’t trust completely in your teammate you couldn’t climb, you’d remain frozen, unable to move and unable to perform. In climbing, as in business, trust is everything.

Building a culture of trust is a bit of a holy grail in organizations these days. Everyone knows that they need it and everyone knows when it isn’t there. Paul Zak and Stephen Knack in their paper “Trust and Growth” in The Economic Journal point out that low trust environments reduce the role of investment. They demonstrate that there’s clear math between trust and economic performance [1], whether that’s trust inside of a company or brand trust with customers. For successful growth to happen trust must exist. But how is it developed?

One way, like in the climbing example above, is to realize the importance of sharing information and communicating clearly. In climbing, you do a lot of shouting back and forth to each other—being transparent on where you are, letting your climbing teammate know whether you’re ready or not, and communicating to each other about potential hazards that may lay ahead. All of this is critical for the climbing team’s success.

A 2015 study of 2.5 million manager-led teams over 195 countries [2] showed that team engagement improved when a leader had some form of daily communication with direct reports. We know you’re busy—but a quick message, text, slack, email, or call lets people know you are paying attention to them and looking out for them.

In climbing, as in business, trust is a two-way street. It’s not something possessed alone but rather is something that demands a relationship. The trust relationship is formed between the one who is trusting and the other who is being trusted. One way to foster additional trust is to give it freely, not wait for it to be earned.  We know so many people who have been burned by a letdown from a teammate and have started to withhold the trust they give. Being transparent and telling people you trust them up front demonstrates vulnerability and empowerment. It’s clear to your team that you’re not watching over their shoulders or suspicious that they’re going to fail. High performing teams give trust to each other and talk it through when trust is lost.

Trust is a critical component of all successful teams whether they be in the office or on the crag. Teams that display a high degree of trust exhibit a high degree of performance.

To read more from Kevin and Amy, check out their new book Wild Success.

[1] Zak, P., and Knack, S. 2001. Trust and Growth. Economic Journal vol 111, issue 470, 295-321.

[2] Gallup State of the American Manager: Analytics and advice for Leaders. Accessed from February 2020.

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Kevin Vallely is a world-class explorer, leadership mentor, author, and an award-winning architect. He is a member of the esteemed Explorer’s Club and was honored as an Explorer’s Club Flag recipient for his expedition to the Northwest Passage in 2013. In 2009 he and two teammates broke the world record for the fastest unsupported trek to the Geographic South Pole. He has written for numerous publications, and is the author of Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea.

Amy Posey is a leadership facilitator, keynote speaker, and former CEO of The AIP Group, a leadership development firm that combines insights from the adventure and business worlds for unique and effective leadership training. Prior to joining The AIP Group, she spent ten years at Deloitte delivering internal leadership development programs, and learning, change, and communications solutions to global technology companies. Posey has an Executive Masters in Applied Neuroscience and Leadership from the NeuroLeadership Institute; an M.B.A. in Managing Change and Marketing from DePaul University’s campus in the Kingdom of Bahrain; and a B.A. in English, Education, and Writing from Purdue University.