Leadership is… Holding Your Ropes

Leadership lessons from rock climbing

Duncan Skelton
2 min readMar 6, 2021

A belayer on a ledge on a sea cliff bring up their second on a rope
A belayer keeping an eye on the incoming weather at Chair Ladder, Cornwall, UK.
Image ©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2007

Marketing uses adventure sports to sell a picture of leadership that is both glossy and flawed. To see what I mean, go Google “images of leadership in climbing” — see what what I mean? Dangerous!

This is not good leadership. It’s marketing. Photoshopped, staged, improbable individualism.

The reality of leadership is much less glossy, less Hollywood, and at the same time far richer, more nuanced and interconnected.

So let me offer you another picture, as a climber and a leadership coach. A more powerful, more aspirational one; one that better represents modern leadership.

Servant Leadership — Belayers on a busy day at the Dewerstone.
Image ©Duncan Skelton/Offwidth Images, 2007

Here we can see real acts of leadership from real climbers.

Leadership is…

Serving others’ success

  • holding the ropes for others’ climbs
  • catching people’s falls (making failure safe)
  • working in service of your partner’s goals

Cheer-leading others’ endeavours

  • championing, acknowledging, witnessing the efforts
  • offering perspective from your balcony position
  • generating options

Modelling humility

  • partnering with stronger climbers than yourself
  • giving the spotlight to others
  • being ready to take the lead, when necessary, when asked

Giving feedback

  • care personally, challenge directly
    “your last piece of protection has fallen out”
    “you’re looking at a ground-fall there, put some more protection in”
  • course-correcting
    “you’re off-route — go up to the left”

What acts of leadership do you see?

Duncan Skelton

Leadership & Executive Coach. Accidental serial marathon runner. A rock climber, always looking to the next adventure.