Leadership Lessons from Adventurer and Environmentalist Rick Ridgeway

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Mountains are often used as metaphors for the challenges that arise in business and leadership. But when Rick Ridgeway compares mountaineering to risk management, he’s speaking from deep experience navigating both the boardroom and some of the world’s highest slopes.

Ridgeway is an outdoor adventurer, writer, and advocate for sustainability and conservation initiatives.  And he’s also the former vice president of environmental initiatives at Patagonia.

In this episode, Ridgeway explains why good communication, ambitious goal setting, and meticulous planning are essential in both mountaineering and business. He also emphasizes the importance of recruiting a strong team – whether you’re leading an uphill battle to make apparel manufacturing more sustainable or summiting K2. Spoiler alert: Ridgeway has done both. 

This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in August 2011.  Here it is.

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green. Nature can be a great teacher, if sometimes an unforgiving one. Some of our best leaders have learned what they know from her. And today, we’re talking about nature as the ultimate leadership development program, and the kind of leadership we’ll need to protect our natural resources for the future.

I’m on the phone with Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice president of environmental initiatives. He’s well known for his summits of the world’s highest mountains, adventures he’s recounted, and books that have become classics. He’s the co-author of an article about the future of sustainability coming up in the October issue of our magazine. Rick, thanks so much for talking with us today.

RICK RIDGEWAY: Oh, you’re welcome. Great to be here.

SARAH GREEN: So, business these days has become a extreme environment. It’s extremely competitive, extremely volatile, extremely demanding. Earlier in your career, you spent a lot of time in actual extreme environments. Are there lessons you draw on now that you learned on the mountain?

RICK RIDGEWAY: Yes. The main lesson that I’ve brought back to my sea level endeavors from the world’s highest places probably include tenacity above everything. Now, I don’t want to overstate that. I think that mountaineers, successful mountaineers, anyway, are probably born with a high quotient of tenacity. You wouldn’t lean that direction in the first place.

But when you’re up on a big climb and the outcome is anything but certain, but you stick to your plan, you put one foot in front of the other, and you stick with it day after day, week after week, sometimes, on the big climbs, month after month, and you pull it off, then you get a lot of reinforcement for the tenacity you had to bring to the project in the first place. So, that certainly informs my business life, as well. And being able to draw out a road map to achieve a goal, and then stick with it and simply never give up, to, in the first place, pick a goal that, at the outset, might even seem quixotic or impossible, but then just through never giving up and never giving in, reaching your goals– that’s definitely something that I brought down from the high mountains.

SARAH GREEN: I think that the thrill of setting the goal and then achieving it, especially a really ambitious goal, is something that, probably, leaders in any setting can relate to. Specifically with regard to leadership, did leading expeditions teach you about leading people in a general business setting?

RICK RIDGEWAY: Yes. There’s a lot of common ground between mountaineering and leading a business team towards a successful goal as well. Obviously, each have a very specific goal. And in expedition climbing, as in business, each have teams with a lot of people that all have their individual aspirations. And you definitely have got to work together to maintain the harmony of the team towards the goal, obviously, in both areas is never very easy.

But again, I think that quality of tenacity informs even the teamwork part, because inevitably, you’re going to get a lot of disagreement. And inevitably, disagreements can only be harmonized through a lot of good communication. And you just have to be able to stick at it, to remain positive, again, to never give up. But positive attitude’s definitely part of it as well.

I’ll give you an example. The hardest climb I had in my career was the first American ascent of K2, when we were the first team that successfully climbed the second highest mountain in the world without using supplemental oxygen. And from the arrival at the base of the mountain to the summit took 68 days. And we faced six major storms, and with each one, we had to come down and retreat to the base and wait for the good weather to return and go back up again. And we would never pulled that off if we hadn’t all been just committed to sticking with it to the very end, and also committed to working with each other until finally we could, as a team, reach our goal.

SARAH GREEN: So, you mentioned in your response the dangers of conflict, and I want to talk a little bit about the importance of getting around conflict, and about persuasion. Because, I think, that seems to be something you’re really good at. And I know, at least historically, arguing for sustainability in business has involved a lot of convincing high-powered people of the merits of doing something they don’t want to do. So, how do you go about doing that?

RICK RIDGEWAY: Well it, begins with picking the right people to join your team in the first place. Everybody knows that, but people often forget that. That’s absolutely the most important initial step.

In the Harvard article we talk about several trends in sustainability that’re currently emerging. And one of the most significant ones is a trend, started in the apparel sector, to align companies around the common goal of developing a uniform tool for measuring environmental and social labor impact of manufacturing products. And that coalition in the apparel sector is achieving phenomenal results, and it’s doing it very quickly. But it’s doing it because we were very careful to invite into the group, in the beginning, companies that would be most willing to reach the goals.

Now, along the way, there are myriad, almost daily moments where you have people that want to go in different directions. And you just have to remind them of the goals that we all agreed to in the first place. And then you have to, in reminding them, appease their higher, loftier ambitions. Remind them that we’re only going to get there if we all work together. And that’s just the conversations you have.

But again, it begins with picking the right people in the first place. It doesn’t matter if it’s mountaineering or business. And again, that sounds like a platitude. We all know that. But how often do we all forget how prominently important that is?

SARAH GREEN: I think you raise a good point about the importance of these coalitions and partnerships, whether it’s bringing multiple companies together or just bringing multiple people together in your team inside one company. I think, though, that these coalitions of the willing, to borrow a phrase– it seems like they can only go so far. So, what kind of leadership does the broader sustainability movement need if they’re going to make ground, maybe, with some people who aren’t always willing? Can they convince people to partner with them?

RICK RIDGEWAY: Well, the important thing to understand is that the willing, the pool of people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and accomplish sustainability goals is increasing quickly. So, perhaps a more interesting question is to ask, why are there more willing people now than there were a very short time ago? And it’s because, increasingly, everyone is starting to sense this threat that we all have in common, that we are doing business well beyond our planet’s ability to sustain our own businesses, both in environmental and in social labor impacts. And if we don’t do anything about it, that it could, in fact, jeopardize our businesses.

So we at Patagonia have recognized that for a number of years. And the epiphanous experience for me was when we were invited, in early 2007, to attend, in Paris, the announcement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest findings, the UN commission that was chartered to assess the impacts of business and other human endeavors on our planet. And there were 500 people in attendance in l’Elysee Palace, leaders from many of the world’s largest corporations, ministers and presidents from most of the world’s governments, and high representatives from its religious and NGO constituencies. And they all heard, together, the warnings. And they were all together for the first time in a room in my experience, experiencing in common– and there was a concern, even a palpable fear, amongst everybody.

And we knew that that fear was also a great opportunity. So, the opportunity was to bring these multi-constituencies together, who are all recognizing that if we didn’t work together, we’re all in trouble together. And we changed our course at our company to, again, instead of pursuing the politics of confrontation, to rather look at collaboration as the best tool moving forward. So, that apparel coalition that I referenced earlier is a multi-stakeholder endeavor. It is bringing together not just companies who are willing, but NGOs and government agencies and universities and academics, as well.

SARAH GREEN: So, it sounds like, to me– I have to say, listening to you talk about what you’ve been doing with Patagonia and the apparel coalition, it sounds, I have to say, like you’re living the dream. You have a job that lets you pursue an issue you’re passionate about. You’re having an impact. Part of the reason I like working for HBR is, I want everyone to be able to feel that way about what they do as their work. But I think some people may listen to that and think, oh, well, that’s great for him, but I can’t climb K2, and I can’t do that either. If there are people who are listening who might like to have that kind of job that really feels– it sounds like more like a calling– what would you tell them?

RICK RIDGEWAY: Well, you have to visualize where you want to go and who you want to be. That’s the first step. And then, just keep your ear to the wind for any opportunity that might lead you that way. And then, of course, proactively try to pursue the opportunity you identify as well. It’s a combination of the two things.

You just can’t wait for it to happen. You’ve got to mold your own future as well. But they both go together side by side.

But the most important thing is to just know that, as an individual, you want to make a difference. The other important thing is to know that you’re going to fail. If you wake up in the morning and stretch your arms and say, OK, today I’m going to go out there and save the world– you can’t do that. But if you get up, stretch your arms, and say, I’m going to work today to save some very small, focused, discrete part of it, you can do that.

SARAH GREEN: So, you mentioned the possibility that you will fail if you bite off more than you can chew, and that got me thinking about failure. We did a whole issue this spring on failure, and learning from failure, and the importance of making mistakes and learning from them. And that just makes me wonder. We talked in the beginning about nature being a great teacher. Is there a mistake that you’ve made, or a moment that you’ve had that you made a mistake, but you learned from it and it left you stronger than you were before?

RICK RIDGEWAY: Yes. I’ve turned back on many climbs, as any mountaineer who’s gained my age has done. And I feel as good about those as I do about the successes. But I’ve made a few mistakes, and I’ve made some that have nearly cost my life.

And I made one where we triggered an avalanche, in 1980, that did kill my best friend and injured my other colleagues with me. And we had to bury my friend on the side of the mountain and go home licking our wounds. And I did learn a lot from that, that mountaineering is about risk management. It’s not about taking heedless risk, but it’s about managing risk so that they even go away.

And that’s what you need to do. You need to identify the risk just as carefully as you can. And in mountaineering, that management of risk is a great satisfaction, a great source of gratification.

But I said at the beginning that mountaineering also teaches you to identify goals that, at the outset, seem impossible, if not, perhaps, even quixotic. But you still need a road map on how you’re going to get there. You need, in your heart of hearts, to have the confidence in yourself that you’re going to pull it off if you just stick with it, if you are careful not to take a risk that is too foolish.

SARAH GREEN: Well, and it’s easy to see how that would help you keep things in perspective, experiences like that. And I think as you’re also talking about managing risk, not taking foolish risks, and a willingness to take on quixotic goals, I think it’s also easy to see how that’s useful in what you’re doing, the sustainability space.

RICK RIDGEWAY: Absolutely. But at the end of the day, the most important opportunity, the biggest opportunity we have in front of us all, is the one I mentioned earlier, that now, for the first time ever, we are all gaining increased visibility over what is a very dire future if we don’t collectively get together to figure out how to reduce our impact on this one planet that we have.

SARAH GREEN: Rick, thanks again so much for talking with us today.

RICK RIDGEWAY: Yes. My great pleasure.

HANNAH BATES: That was Rick Ridgeway in conversation with Sarah Green on the HBR IdeaCast. Ridgeway is an outdoor adventurer, writer and advocate for sustainability and conservation initiatives. And he’s the former vice president of environmental initiatives at Patagonia.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

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This episode was produced by Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. And music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Nicole Smith, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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