Anyone who enjoys outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, running, mountaineering, etc. has undoubtedly encountered their fair share of false summits. You work tirelessly in your endeavor to summit the gnarly hill in front of you only to find upon cresting what was in your view was only the beginning. Beyond lies the REAL climb and you wonder how it is that you will drag your exhausted body over what looms ahead.

In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, Campbell states that a story begins when the hero faces a crisis, a triggering event, which then propels him into action. In organizations, this can be a merger, a downsizing event, a leadership change. For an individual, this can be the death of a loved one, a loss of a key relationship, a traumatic event. No matter what the triggering event, we as leaders or individuals are thrust into a fast-moving current of problem-solving and survival.

We busy ourselves with tactics and strategies to get ourselves, our teams or our loved ones out of harm’s way and just as we sense the dust beginning to settle where all things return to their norm, we are introduced to our very own False Summit – or in story structure, acts two and three – where the proverbial sh*t gets real.


The Bitter Truth About Transformation

Any epic tale, of which our lives and organizations certainly live, requires great periods of transformation. As the well-titled book by Marshall Goldsmith so wisely states, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” The same is true for any organism and if we want to “level up” and weather the storm then we have to possess the necessary grit required to summit the real challenge ahead of us.

I have run into false summits in every aspect of my life, both personal and professional. I have been in organizations where a seemingly innocuous leadership change has resulted in massive turnover by top talent. A “second act” in no way considered by the executives playing chess with human dynamics. A tailspin ensued and an intervention had to take place in order to stabilize the company and stop the bleeding.

In my personal life, I have encountered trauma that has knocked me to my knees. In the face of it, I have employed all of my dearly held Type A Personality ticks to try and out-busy the pain as if I could somehow keep myself downstream of loss, never to feel the waves of grief wash over me. But while I could outrun the pain for a while, eventually the false summit would reveal itself requiring me to be still and quiet. And to finally do the deep work necessary to tend to and heal the wounds of my inner life. Only then was I able to be whole again.

There is no getting out of the emotional and/or professional upheaval that comes with a Hero’s Journey. Sure, we can choose to call it quits upon sighting the False Summit but we will be no hero as a result. Instead, we will inhibit our organizations or teams as we bury our heads in the sand. Or we will become more and more bitter and resentful because we just couldn’t be bothered to do the hardest work in life – digging deep to see what we’re made of while transforming difficulty into enlightenment.

“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
– Joseph Campbell

How to Navigate the False Summit

Assuming we’d all like to emerge the hero in our own story, here are some tips for leaders and individuals on what to do once you’ve spotted the False Summit and realize that the REAL work still lies ahead.

  1. STOP. No, this isn’t an acronym. It’s a powerful ask that you stop whatever you are doing so you can fully understand what lies ahead. We tend to keep moving as it gives us a false sense of achievement. But if you don’t take a pause, your efforts will be just that: a false sense of achievement.
  2. Adjust Your Strategy. Like any athlete who has miscalculated his race plan, do not attempt to employ the original plan or strategy that brought you to this point as a means to finish the race. During your pause, grok the new landscape and draw up a new plan. Leaders may need to adjust timelines, financial expectations, entire product strategies. Individuals may need to call on community to help, seek therapeutic interventions, request time off. Identify what it is that is needed now, given this new reality, and strategize from there.
  3. Communicate. Leaders should communicate as soon as possible with their teams when a “second act” has emerged. Chances are, employees are already fully aware of the additional fall-out so hiding or pretending it’s no big deal will sink your credibility. Individuals facing their own “second act” should reach out to close friends and family so that at least one other person knows of your situation.
  4. Celebrate. When you have summited a true Hero’s Journey, it is cause for celebration. Mark the occasion with your teams or find a way to acknowledge your hard work and epic journey with a ritual you have crafted just for yourself.
  5. Write it Down. This likely won’t be the only False Summit you conquer so write down what you learned. What would you do again? What would you consider doing differently? What did you learn about yourself, your team, the situation? Reflection is a powerful tool.

If you have a story to share about your own False Summit or Hero’s Journey, please share!

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Halley Bock is the author and founder of Life, Incorporated.

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