Scott Kress on the summit of Everest

Scott Kress’ Learning In Thin Air keynote leverages the power of storytelling to change the way his audiences’ think about leadership and teamwork. Here’s how he does it.

But first, let’s take a look at why storytelling can be one of the most powerful tools that a leader can have. Andy Raskin, a strategic storytelling expert who has worked with major corporations including Uber and Intel, says that any leader who achieves anything does so by telling a great, credible story. Dianne Booher, an expert in leadership communications, argues that stories carry emotion that connect with people, and drives ideas deeper into our psyches. Paul Smith, author and consumer research expert, suggests that stories inspire organizations, sets visions, teach important lessons, and defines cultures and values.

Stories entertain, educate, and inspire. This is certainly true of Learning In Thin Air.

Scott Kress is one of the handful of Canadians that have climbed the Seven Summits – the highest peaks of each of the seven continents, including Mount Everest. In his keynote speech, he shares numerous stories based on his climbing experiences to capture the essence of high performance leaders and teams.

He begins by sharing an experience of failure – his 2001 climb of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mount in the world. Led by an ineffective leader, his team ended up becoming stuck in the ‘storming’ phase of group development, and was unable to summit the mountain. Like any good storyteller, Scott shares the reason why the climb wasn’t successful – and what that tells us about teams.

Guided by a leader who subscribed to an ‘old school’ model of leadership predicated upon power, fear, and intimidation, the team ended up with a fractured vision, lack of trust and communication, autonomous action, and lack of reflection. This tells us the importance of trust, communication, and accountability in high performing teams. At the core, relationships matter.

Scott then shares what can happen when all of these elements are present in a team. In his 2008 Everest climb, he faced a 10% chance of success, and the fact that close to 300 people have died while trying to climb Everest. Furthermore, even if he did summit the mountain, he faced some terrifying odds on his way back – close to 80% of fatalities occur after summit success. Surprisingly, these statistics seem to mirror the research on teams that Scott presents – only 15% of teams reach high performance.

Although Scott and his team faced a number of barriers on the climb, they managed to successfully summit Everest. He explains they achieved success this time around because his team was built on solid relationships, clear vision, successful communication, and accountability. Evidently, if these traits can bring success to a group summiting Everest, teams working at sea level will also benefit from these traits.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The stories that Scott shares in his keynote captivates the audience on an emotional level, and his experiences of successes and failures drive home the strategies that will truly bring teams in any context to high performance. No doubt, the power of Scott’s storytelling has to be experienced in person.

Last week, I had a chance experience Scott’s keynote when he spoke at Brock University. I talked to some of the audience after the presentation, who shared with me how they thought Scott’s keynote impacted them.

Courtney, a fourth year Sport Management student with an exceptional passion for leadership, was deeply impacted by Scott’s talk. “He emphasized the unpredictable nature of leadership, and got me thinking about the importance of adaptability.” By talking about leadership in the most extreme of circumstances and connecting it to everyday life, she shared that Scott taught the group that it’s the little things that really matter in leadership.

Another student in the audience, who is also a fourth year student who is highly involved at Brock University. “It was the most inspiring hour and a half that I’ve had in my university career,” he shared in a conversation after Scott’s keynote. The unique, exciting stories that Scott shared inspired him to see leadership in a different light.

At the end of the day, a lesson that the successes of Scott’s keynote can teach us as leaders is that stories truly have the power to captivate and inspire.

So perhaps a question worth asking yourself is this – what “mountains” have you summited in your life, and what message can you share with your team based on your experiences?