I’m a pretty voracious reader who tends to be consumed by biographies. For some reason, studying the lives of real people—especially those who live in developing nations or who face conflict and turmoil—resonates with me.
One of my recent reads—Tenzing and the Sherpas of Everest—crossed categories for me. Not only was it a fascinating look into the life of Tenzing Norgay—perhaps the most famous Sherpa of all time—it also centered on the early attempts to climb Mount Everest, a topic prominent in my personal library.
What made Tenzing and the Sherpas of Everest even more interesting was that every page seemed to carry new lessons for school leaders.
Consider this excerpt, detailing Tenzing’s actions on one of the most strenuous parts of early trips to Everest, the tedious, months-long hike through intimidating terrain to get dozens of expedition members and porters—not to mention thousands of pounds of supplies—from the nearest accessible town to base-camp:
“Like the great sirdar Ang Tharkay, Tenzing walked with them in stages, talked to them, bought them rakshi (homemade liquor) and tea at small teahouses en route, and tended to them when they were ill or injured.
Although a classless society, Sherpas do have social strata. Tenzing was not a wealthy man but…he was a famous sirdar and highly respected by all who worked with him or knew of him. When such a man physically assists and keeps company with porters and local staff it is an extraordinary boost to their morale and cooperation.” (J. Tenzing, 2001, Kindle Location 910-917).
Interesting stuff, huh? Tenzing didn’t have to walk with his porters. He was the sirdar of the expedition—and a well known one at that. No one had more experience than Tenzing in the mountains, and that experience made him the most important Sherpa on any trip.
He could have easily taken advantage of his position, walking with light loads and spending time with European climbers instead of the human mules carrying equipment in exchange for meager salaries. Instead, he carried heavy packs and made a deliberate choice to recognize and respect the efforts of his men.
The most influential school leaders make the same choice. Understanding that morale and cooperation—the only two levers for driving change in any human organization—are linked to the faith that teachers have in their leaders, they check their titles at the door, roll up their sleeves and lead from the pack.
Instead of giving orders and then sitting on the sidelines expecting their teachers to do the heavy-lifting, they visibly participate: Joining in conversations, finding solutions to problems, lightening loads whenever possible. No one questions the commitment of the best principals because that commitment is on display from the time that busses arrive until the time that the last teachers leave.
Tenzing was also tireless, the first to provide comfort and support to struggling colleagues on almost every climb. Consider this excerpt detailing his actions in the face of a crisis on the Lhotse Face:
“To make a sad situation even worse, three Sherpas—Aila, Da Norbu and Mingma Rita, who were roped together—had lost their footing and tumbled down 200 meters to the ice below.
Mingman Rita suffered a broken collarbone and cracked ribs; Aila’s face was so badly damaged he was unrecognizable; but Da Norbu somehow managed to survive with only bruising.
Tenzing had not been with them when these accidents occurred, but when news reached him he immediately hurried up the mountain to take care of his Sherpas whom he knew would be devastated and afraid.” (J. Tenzing, 2001, Kindle Location 1019-1024)
While teacher teams are never going to be in the kinds of life-or-death situations that faced Tenzing’s Sherpas, they will lose their footing and tumble from time-to-time. Collaboration is difficult at best, requiring a set of skills and behaviors that teachers are rarely prepared for. Initial progress is often painfully slow and setbacks are common.
The most influential school leaders spot struggling teams quickly and hurry to take care of their teachers. They might offer extra time and attention: Joining in meetings, introducing new tools and structures important for successfully overcoming obstacles, finding training opportunities to ensure that teachers are better prepared for the climb.
Or they might just encourage and support: Pointing out the successes that teams have already had, reminding teachers to save energy for the entire journey, applying “psychological bandages” to exhausted colleagues. Either way, the best school leaders act immediately when they realize that a team is in trouble, drawing from their own expertise to keep everyone moving forward.
Not all of the selections that stood out in Tenzing and the Sherpas of Everest had to do with Tenzing directly, however. Consider this rather humorous bit detailing the actions of a Sherpa asked to carry a backpack of rocks collected and categorized by Swiss geologists down from a camp high on the mountain:
One Sherpa was given the task of carrying down the valuable rock specimens…Each specimen was labeled and catalogued and carefully packed to take home to Europe for study.
However, this particular Sherpa felt it absurd to carry rocks down from Everest, so decided to make life easier for himself and tipped out his load! He then climbed down to just above Base Camp where he collected a new pile…which he dutifully handed over to the Swiss.
One can only imagine the horror of the Swiss scientists! The Sherpa, meanwhile, was oblivious to all the fuss and lost no sleep over the matter. (J. Tenzing, 2001, Kindle Location 989-996).
How many confused Sherpas do you have in your school and/or system? While us teacher-types generally know that we’re responsible for carrying out the tasks assigned to us by school leaders—principals, superintendents, district lead teachers, school board members—sometimes those tasks seem to be just plain absurd!
And while teachers will almost always do what we’re told, the end result of any effort carried out in blind obedience is likely to be scattered and careless.
(Don’t believe me? Ask a Swiss geologist!)
That’s why the most influential school leaders are diligent about building awareness and commitment in their faculties. Each time decisions are made, those decisions are carefully communicated. Clear connections are drawn between the actions a building is already taking and the new tasks that teachers are being asked to take on. No one is confused about their purpose or how their work connects to broader organizational goals.
In the end, Tenzing’s story was encouraging to me. He was a simple man with little formal education. He didn’t have any degrees in organizational leadership or school administration. He hadn’t served in the military or gone to any officer training programs.
And yet he learned how to lead anyway.
Better yet, Tenzing’s leadership decisions didn’t require anything other than common sense. He accepted responsibility for his men, set an example that couldn’t be questioned, and saw himself as the intellectual and professional equal of his peers.
The results were nothing short of extraordinary for Tenzing. He quickly became the first-choice for expeditions headed to the Himalayas. He organized trip after trip—and was paid well in the process. He raised his family’s status and quality of life, was respected and admired by everyone—Sherpa and European alike—and ended up conquering a challenge that few thought was possible.
Having worked for dozens of principals during the course of my career, I can tell you that the school leaders who make the same choices can be just as successful.