Sunday, March 25, 2012

Leadership and the Metaphor of the Mountaintop

The Kilimanjaro Fundraising Climb for African Leaders

Throughout history, leaders have used the mountaintop, or “high places” as a point of their reflection, a moment of rest, a vista for the way forward.

Moses received some pretty good lessons on a mountaintop; Jesus had a number of significant experiences and lessons in His mountaintop moments.

In his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King experienced the mountaintop and saw a view of the Promised Land… he never got to see it this side of The Gates, but passed through them the next day. 

Nelson Mandela looked back over his journey from a high place - “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” (Nelson Mandela, former president, Republic of South Africa)

There’s something about viewing our work, our organizations from a different perspective, from high up, one can view just how big and small some of our efforts and problems really are.   While there are dozens of metaphoric lessons on leadership and the mountaintop experience, let me share just a few….

The journey is long, travel light.  WOW, it’s easy to carry the baggage of ego, our marred identity (I am the job, I am the title), and the God Complexes (if I don’t do it, the organization will collapse) with us on this journey, but frankly too much attention is paid to leadership and not nearly enough to stewardship.  We are not owners but merely stewards, of our work, of our teams, of our resources…. For such a time as this.

Don’t be overwhelmed by how far the peak looks. Strategic planning is good, forward thinking is good, but looking too far ahead results in two things: we feel overwhelmed by the distance, and forget how quickly things can change.  So take time to plan, to give a glance at the journey ahead, but stay focused and take it one step at a time, making sure to stop and celebrate those victories and milestones along the way.

Hey, did you notice, you’re not on this journey alone?  So little about leadership truly rests with individual effort. There are the select few that hold the title, and have the perks, but it’s the real leader who recognizes their true role is in acknowledging those with them on the journey, strengthening and cheering them on in the climb.     

Carry someone else’s load and let them carry yours.  It is the rare and right leader who is both willing to shoulder the load of others, and who humbles themselves to let others carry theirs.  We move in and out of our leader and follower roles, carrying each other’s burdens, sharing the load.

At the peak, stop, rest, and enjoy the view.  Here’s the moment to savor, to look back from where you’ve come, to reflect on the people who’ve made the journey with you and the moments that got you here.  When the noise of the day-to-day quiets down, it’s easier to hear the things that are important for the way ahead.  All that loomed large down in the valley is suddenly so small.  And the important visions for the future break through.  Stop, savor, reflect and rejoice.

One deep breath and down you go.   While it may be tempting to stay up on the mountain, or live for those mountaintop experiences, it is, however, in the valley that the real work happens, its where our calling lies, laboring and working for solutions to big problems, building up and edifying those around us.  With greater clarity between the insignificant and the important because of those mountaintop experiences.  

For the last 16 years I’ve walked alongside many amazing leaders from all around the world.  Together we’ve gathered for an annual residency somewhere in Africa, Asia or Latin America to study and discuss ideas about faith, service and leadership in ministry and NGO work.  Those annual residencies are mountaintop experiences for me, and many a student has shared that they are for them as well…. Times to step away, be quiet, reflect and grapple with the day-to-day realities of leading their organizations.

It is their faces I will reflect on when I sit atop Kilimanjaro in July.  Not only my own leadership journey, but their stories as well, will be with me.  For every one of these great leaders, there are dozens of others who could have a greater impact with their work, if only they had further opportunities for leadership development.  But the financial resources are ALWAYS a challenge.  That’s where you come in.  Would you consider supporting one of these leaders today, “carrying some of their load” while they carry the huge burden of serving the poor in the hard places of the world?

For more information about the programs the School of Leadership and Development offers go to:  For more information about the Fundraising climb, visit

--Beth Birmingham
Associate Professor of Leadership and Change
Eastern University Alumni
Kilimanjaro Climber :-)

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