How to Scale Your Own Leadership “Dawn Walls”

I don’t know if it’s possible; I’m just going to keep working on it. — Tommy Caldwell,  El Capitan Dawn Wall Climber

In recent weeks, I marveled at the tenacity and audacity of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson as they free-climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, following their 3-week, 3000-foot climb up the mountain’s sheer granite face.  What we didn’t see was the behind the scenes hard work that made the end result possible: the 7 years of planning, the obstacles identified and analyzed, the attempts to climb daunting patches of the wall over and over again. Imagine the focus and attention Caldwell and Jorgeson had to use each second of the climb!

To me, this Dawn Wall climb serves as a larger than life reminder of the approach to take when confronting personal and professional challenges – small and large.

Most of us go to work each day, subconsciously replicating the same experiences for ourselves and our employees without really being present and using the conscious attention and focus that could take things to another level.  The Caldwell/Jorgeson climb serves as a reminder of the conscious reflection, planning and attention required to become great at anything, including leadership.

Here’s how we can scale the Dawn Wall of our own leadership, using experiences to evolve ourselves with each challenge that presents itself to us:

  • Reflect on where you’ve been and how far you’ve come along as a leader.  No matter where you are as a leader, if you look back on your development, are you making progress toward a better version of your leader-self? As with Caldwell and Jorgeson, how well have you planned and executed your development? What obstacles, challenges, and setbacks have you run into? What did you do to overcome or adjust in response? Did you have to back-track and find a new way to get where you are now? In what ways have you become clearer about your leadership style and capacities? How has your perspective changed regarding what leadership is for you?
  • Identify your next challenge (aka “Dawn Wall”).  There is always a challenge to overcome, whether it’s a new market to explore, a new alliance to form, a new way of interfacing with direct reports, or a new definition of your work as you enter a different phase of your career or life.  These challenges provide the impetus for making changes in the way you lead and relate to others. What’s the challenge in front of you now that you will commit to take on?
  • Identify new capacities you need to be able to scale this newest challenge. Often, we are more concerned with the new capacities employees need for business endeavors to be successful, and we forget that each new challenge will require us as leaders to raise our competencies as well. Failing to grow along with a challenge is usually an invitation to be passed up and passed over as change occurs around us.  Constantly evolving into a better and better version of you not only keeps you relevant and competitive, but it makes you personally more adaptable and capable and more valuable because of that.  Think of the challenges that come your way as tailor-made growth opportunities. 

These growth opportunities may come in the form of eliminating behaviors and/or beliefs that are no longer serving you, capitalizing on an existing strength and taking it to a new level, or developing a new skill, like the ability influence others who don’t report to you. Whatever your current challenge is asking of you, whatever your potential areas for growth are, be open to them. You’ll evolve while serving as a role model for the importance of on-going personal and professional growth.

  • Create your professional development plan. Yes, you need a professional development plan, too. And as with other employees, it’s really effective if it’s strategically tied in some way to your organization’s strategic goals and those current challenges.  What new experiences do you need to grow? What existing strengths can you build on? What knowledge and skills do you need to gain? What attitudes do you need to change or let go of?  And what’s the action plan to accomplish the areas for growth you’ve identified?

Whichever challenge comes your way, working on it can pay off big for your business and evolve your leadership capacity.  You’ll be better than you were before and ready for the next challenge.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman is the advisor for senior leaders who seek to evolve their leadership capacity by solving current business challenges for better productivity and profitability. Learn more about her company Firebrand Consulting LLC at: