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Toughest Call Ep. 102 - To go forward or retreat while 2,000 meters above certain death (with John Bourke) - TRANSCRIPT


John Bourke  00:04

I may end up dead. So low probability. I don't know if I was mentally survive, dangling off the rope with a tooth longer dropped below me.


Chaz Thorne  00:15

Welcome back and welcome to toughest call a podcast for organizational leaders where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz Thorne. In this episode, I'm talking with john Burke about a tough call he faced when climbing a literal mountain, and what he learned from it as a leader. JOHN is the president of the Business Excellence Institute, a worldwide membership body for Business Excellence professionals, john talks about a difficult choice he had to make while standing on a narrow ledge above a deadly two kilometer drop. Though it was not a call he had to make for his business, the repercussions of that defining moment continue to inform how he approaches his professional decision making. JOHN, let's start at the point of why did you decide that you needed to climb a mountain?


John Bourke  01:14

Wow. That's a good question. And it's one which I think in this particular instance, wasn't a big decision. I mean, it wasn't climbing a mountain. It was climbing another mountain, I climbed many mountains. It's things that I've been doing since about the age of three, the first mountain I climbed, I had to do two attempts. So this particular mountain, and the reasons behind why climate were because at the time, I was living in Tokyo, and I hadn't seen my father in quite a while. pushing a year, he was 65. And I didn't have too many more opportunities I felt in my life where I would be able to go climbing mountains with him. My brother and I both decided that we'd fly to climb American with him. And he selected a mountain in the United States in Wyoming, the Grand Teton or the Grand Teton. Okay.


Chaz Thorne  02:19

So you're there. With your your brother and your father. And I'm assuming, when did you have a guide? Were there other? Were there other people in your group as well?


John Bourke  02:31

Yes. But in this particular instance, because we were totally new to it. And it was a technical level of expertise claiming greater than either my brother I had the was a guide. And so you'd go up with a guide and multiple other people as well. But we opted for this as a family unit with one guide. So there were four of us on the climb.


Chaz Thorne  02:56

Were you what was happening? What was the environment around you, when you were faced with this tough call?


John Bourke  03:06

Okay, well, I mean, the scene, it starts off very easily you fly in. That's something which, in our case, but 36 hours and loads of plane journeys, you immediately start to have to overcome jetlag, but also to climatized. Because at the time of living in Tokyo, it's approximately sea level. And we flew into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is an altitude of about 2000 meters. So that's already air is a bit thinner. So what you do, as you start to climatized, you do a little bit of exercising, you get to know the guide, he does a couple of technical tests to check your competency and get a confidence that you will be able to safely climb the mountain. And also, I believe, and I discussed this briefly with him, to determine which route to take you up not to go necessarily too easily are too too hard to sort of get it right for you. Then after you set out, you've got a day of I'm going to call it climbing, but it's not technical climbing. It's a day of ascent. And you do that day of ascent to a camp. We call it a base camp. It had its own name, but you know, that's specific to this particular mountain. And at that base camp, you arrive, you cook yourself some food for the evening, you go to bed. And the next morning, in this case, you get up and you make the ascent to the summit. If all goes well, after which you will descend. So this particular time, it's a two day climb. And therefore, you've got that first day of ascent. And then you've got this next day where you wake up, typically around 3am and you would start moving head torch on at about 330 because the idea is to get up While the temperatures are still such that it's safe, and therefore you you would normally be looking to solid, late morning, and then spend the rest of the day descending.


Chaz Thorne  05:16

Are you at the base camp at this point? Where are you at the next, the next point in terms of the two day ascent.


John Bourke  05:25

So we're at this stage where I held his moment of the top is called quite a bit out from the base camp The following morning. So having had breakfast we set out at around 3:30am. It's dark, it's cold, and it's raining. And now it was early summertime, but at the same time, you're on altitude, and it's still dark, so it's cold. And where I was, was on a narrow ledge, having gone horizontally or traversed across to the next piece of vertical ascent. And the ledge. I'm going to guess it was about six inches. So it maybe 10 or 12 centimeters wide. There was a vertical drop of approximately 2000 meters.


Chaz Thorne  06:20

Yes. Okay. Yeah,


John Bourke  06:23

yeah, that's, that's one way to put it at directly beside me now, we were roped, so you know, we're safe. We're safe in theory and logic, but not necessarily emotionally. And you run through your heads, yes. But if I fall, I'm still hurt myself, I'm not being tangling with maybe, you know, a broken limb, over a mile or two kilometers. What's next? It was very, very wet. So I had taken my gloves off to ensure that I was getting grip on the stone, which of course means because it was cold as well. But my fingers were beginning to get a little bit too cold, a little bit numb. And at this point, the guide said to me, we're almost there, which is good news. And he said, all we need to do now is just go up here, and then turn right. And I looked up where he was pointing, and it was an overhang. My hands are cold, the rock is a bit slip, because it's wet. There's this big drop. And I've just been pointed to an overhang, which means you sort of would need to be sort of a spider to get up at security in my head. And at this stage, I remember thinking very clearly, okay, I cannot do that. I have my father who's 65, my brother on the guide, we're now one and a half days in or 75% or so of the climb, done all night almost at the objective. But I'm going to have to say to myself that I am brave enough to admit that I'm not up to this. And that means we're not going to achieve our objective, we're going to have to turn back the fact that my father had flown from Europe, my brother and I had flown from Japan, all of that effort. Probably the last time we were ever going to be able to go and climb a mountain with my father, again, was going to be exploded and wasted. Because we are doing something that is technically and perhaps, psychologically, just that bridge too far for me.


Chaz Thorne  08:44

So did you did you voice this with your, with the guide with your brother with with your dad and sort of talk it through with them? What was sort of your process in this moment of deciding, you know, do I go forward? Or do I do I not?


John Bourke  09:03

I discussed it with the guide. And the guide was immediately proximate to me. I said, I'd like I'm man enough to admit that I don't want to go on I am not gonna be able to do this. And that was my verbalization. Having gone through the internal dialogue, the internal dialogue was, this is my decision. And if I make everybody fails, and if I pushed through it, I may end up and I may end up dead. It's a low probability, but I don't know if I would mentally survive, dangling off a rope with a two kilometer drop below me. And so the guide responded and said, that's fine. It's no problem. We can turn down. We can go back and that put me a little bit at ease. Not much because you've gone through this thing of taking that up. Got to go over this overhang. And, unfortunately, then the guide said, or fortunately, depending on perspective, the easiest way to go down is we just go up here, and then we turn left, which was up the exact same thing that I was worried about. As opposed to turning right for the summer, we turn left and go down. At which point, I suppose the decision was made for me, because the only way out of this situation was to go over this challenge as it were. And therefore, irrespective of whether we were going to continue and succeed, our turn back, I had to face my fear.


Chaz Thorne  10:41

What was your process, then, in that moment, in order to get your feet to even move forward,


John Bourke  10:51

I was pretty simple. I mean, you know, you don't have a choice, there's, when you do have a choice, you die. Because you kind of can't stay on that ledge forever, or you go forward. So I suppose it's a mental side, maybe a physical side. And then you get yourself in position, and you start climbing. So it was a moment of acceptance. And then, okay, I've got to do this. It's, it's not something where you can argue about the best way to do it, or you can decide I'll do it tomorrow. You're you're standing on this ledge. And also, you know, the day is progressing and the sun is coming up. And that kind of have implications for things like ice and so on. So you want to just, I suppose, even if you're going to die, you want to do it in such a way that you don't cause other people that I do? Well, I mean, brain, that logic definitely didn't go through my head. It was just okay. I hate this. But let's go.


Chaz Thorne  11:55

So what happens next, as you move towards the overhang?


John Bourke  11:59

So what happened next was, I said, Okay, let's go. And then the guide showed me exactly where I needed to go. And to my amazing delight, which also shows me that communication is so important. I realized that it wasn't to climb, the overhang, which he had initially pointed to, it was to climb slightly to the right of that overhang, which didn't require me to be quite the same degree of spider. And as a result of that, already, I started to feel more confident. And okay, we put the guidance went first.


Chaz Thorne  12:42

And I thought, That's really interesting. So there was there was actually an assumption that you were making that was weighed into your your decision that turned out to be slightly incorrect.


John Bourke  12:56

Oh, I don't think there was any question that it was slightly incorrect. I mean, it was totally incorrect.


Chaz Thorne  13:02

I was trying to be generous, john, there you go. But okay, that's fine.


John Bourke  13:05

That's fine. But But herein lies a really key lesson. The assumption the guide made was that I understood where we were supposed to go, when he pointed, the assumption I made was that I had correctly interpreted where he was saying we had to go, neither of us taught to double check. And if, for example, you're you're seeing you're sailing, you give an instruction, and that restriction is echoed back. So you have that confirmation built in, in cases where there's a lot of things that are really critical, and people's livelihoods are on the line. And in this instance, decry believe that I had understood, I believe, that I had understood and I was incorrect, the consequence of which was, I had overestimated the challenge, overestimate the difficulty, and that dread that that that kind of this is a bridge too far for me, presented me with a psychological barrier that was more challenging, more difficult than the actual buyer that I had to face.


Chaz Thorne  14:14

So you get beyond the overhang, you realize that okay, this is actually the way to go. And then you turn right or you turn left?


John Bourke  14:24

No, I mean, at that stage, it was always going to be a rush. Okay, once once, you've got to go over there. That's the bit that was problematic. There's no more question. We're not now that we got over this. We're not going to go back. I'm not going to be a result of the team failing in its objective. We're gonna continue the rest of it. You know what, it's it's a little bit shaky. But ultimately, it's it's much easier than the bit that we've just done. It's the final ascent and you It's it's what you need to do to achieve the objective to obtain the goal. And by the way, it's going to be wonderful to see the view from the assumption.


Chaz Thorne  15:08

What did it feel like when you were at the summit?


John Bourke  15:11

So normally, when I get to the summit of mountains, I'm normally there's not that much technical climbing, not rock climbing involved. It's really wonderful. You get to see the splendid nature and appreciate this earth. It's the kind of thing which if you talk to the people who are Buddhist monks, for example, they say, you know, you can't really explain to somebody they need to experience themselves, but I give it a shot and explain that to you. Nonetheless, this time, right, the first thing that I felt was just relief. It's kind of Hurray, we're here, I've done it. I haven't caused anybody to to be disappointed. We didn't need to turn back. And, by the way, yes, isn't it beautiful?


Chaz Thorne  16:01

So what do you feel you took from that experience, that has informed how you now approach tough calls, as a leader of your of your own organization,


John Bourke  16:16

my biggest barrier, irrespective of whether it was the overhang, or to the right of it, was my own fear. And fear is a construct of the mind. And you therefore have the ability to overcome these things, yourself, your own mind, can give you the ability to come through these things. So you have, I suppose, the ability to really push through and conquer your fears. And this is in a situation where there was a degree of physical danger. In places where there isn't degree of physical danger, where it's it's a fear of maybe being laughed out, or being ostracized are some political pushback in an organization are some small financial impacts of things not going optimally work, these things are all much smaller consequences, and therefore, in a way, much easier to to overcome those fears. The next thing is obviously always there's implications for other people. In this particular instance, it was the other people on that team, in this case, family plus the guide. And even though you know, this is a personal decision, that personal decision affects other people and impacts them positively or negatively. And then to wrap back down to the conversation about the assumptions. Assumptions really are made, we need to make assumptions to get through life, but they are very dangerous, because frequently what we assume is wrong. And as a team, as a group of people who need to collaborate, to work together to achieve anything, in order to, I suppose, clarify that you all have a common understanding, really frequent open communication, and synopsize in an echoing back, etc, to make sure that the actual understandings are shared, is hugely important.


Chaz Thorne  18:22

That is an excellent not only summary of that experience, but but tangible application for, for how it can inform how we look at decision making, as leaders enclosing john, any plans to climb any other mountains. And I'm not talking metaphorical I'm talking literal, anytime, anytime soon.


John Bourke  18:49

I will always claim that both physical and metaphorical. Because not because of there, but because, ultimately, you you need to set yourself goals that you're going to enjoy achieving. And life is a mountain, it's a journey. And realistically, it's not just a view, it's the process of getting there, even when you're on that agent scared that really makes everything so worthwhile.


Chaz Thorne  19:19

If you'd like to learn more about john and his work, check out his organization, the Business Excellence Institute at business and consider becoming a member. And if you'd like some assistance with your own tough calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to toughest to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to toughest call, please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I hope this conversation helps you when faced with your next tough call.

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