What Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Taught Me About Women in Leadership

By Jacinta Jiménez, Head of Coaching, BetterUp

Everything is quiet except for the rhythmic sound of the four Tanzanian men’s feet hitting the ground in unison and my shallow breathing from the oxygen mask on my face. I am very weak, but somehow, I hold on so I don’t fall off the back of the porter as he runs at full speed down the tallest mountain in Africa.

How did I let this happen to me? Just a few hours ago I was 19,431 feet up looking down at the world with 30 other women on International Women’s Day.

What I did to myself on Mount Kilimanjaro last year—stretching beyond one’s limit to get to the top at a rigorous pace and then trying to deal with the consequences after arriving—is exactly what I’ve heard from the many intelligent, hard-working and conscientious female leaders I’ve coached.

Leadership positions are truly low oxygen environments and what no one tells you is that arriving at the top sets off an almost immediate and rapid descent in personal well-being. We need to embrace a new model that encourages sustainability, so that when we do make it to the top, we have the energy, oxygen and bandwidth to do the great work we came there to do. My experience climbing Mount Kilimanjaro left me with four profound lessons for women ascending to the top.

#1. Acclimatize gradually. Our Tanzanian guides encouraged us to move slower to get there faster. A rush to the top will almost invariably cause altitude sickness and slow a climber down. Similarly, leaders must maintain healthy amounts of mental and emotional energy along the way.

#2. Maintain solid support. About five minutes into the final and hardest seven-hour stretch to the summit, my rental poles broke. Thankfully, I had my Sherpa to lean on and the voices of the other women around me to guide me up the mountain. Climbing to the top alone is not realistic. Women need to enlist enough support and invest in becoming mentors and powerful allies for one another. An African proverb that I learned in Tanzania says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

#3. Embrace self-compassion. As we climbed higher and higher, I could feel my altitude sickness symptoms worsening. My internal voice kept urging me to “tough it out” and listening to that voice left me very afraid on the way down. It is important for women leaders to embrace self-compassion to counterbalance the “you must work harder and faster” messages that we’ve been hearing our entire lives.

#4. Lead high, but rest low. As I reached the summit I gasped for air as I strained to mutter the words, “I made it. I’m here.” Both women and men need to reevaluate our ideas about what it takes to make it to the top and actually continue to thrive once we’re there. Rest is imperative for sustainable leadership, but sadly it is too often overlooked. Leaders can only realize maximum performance when periods of rest are scheduled uncompromisingly.

Getting to the top of what is already an unequal playing field has required women to work harder to get ahead. We must embrace sustainable ways to get there and stay there. Wherever you are in your career, working with a coach can help you envision your future, build the skills to reach your goals and develop the inner resources needed to sustain your performance, such as energy, agility and growth mindset.

BetterUp is partnering with Watermark to help women at all levels access coaching to support their career journey. An introductory rate of $2,388 (just $199/month for a full year of coaching) is available until April 30th. Learn more at betterup.co/watermark.

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