Okay, first things first: yeah, the last post was for April Fools–just a clarification for those who are still scratching their heads. Punk’d, indeed.
Onward. So, every year my brother Ron (okay, he’s really my brother-in-law, but our relationship feels more like regular brothers), teaches a rock climbing class for the university. And every year, he asks if I’d like to go along. I usually do, and this year was no exception. We spent the weekend living in the dirt at Smith Rock, with a bunch of college students.
I haven’t considered myself a rock climber for a really long time. I still get on the rock once in a while, but my main function when I go on these trips is that of "belay slave." If you’re not familiar with what a belay slave does, well, it’s easy. They belay climbers. The big idea is that the climber is on one end of the rope and the belayer is on the other end. If the climber falls, the belayer is the person that keeps the climber from hitting the ground. There’s more detail, of course, but that’ll get you started. So, on these trips, I belay lots of climbers.
At first glance, the belayer’s job doesn’t seem very glamorous. Nor at any other glance, actually, since the belayer doesn’t get the glory. Upon further reflection, though, the relationship between belayers and managers becomes obivious. Or maybe not so obvious–I’ve been climbing for years and this didn’t occur to me until the second morning of this most recent trip (and I’m probably way behind the ball–I bet NOLS and Outward Bound have got this schtick down pat). Here’s what I’m thinking about…
In case it’s not already clear, I’m envisioning the belayer as manager and the climber as staff. Typically, out on the rock, the climber gets all the love. After all, they’re doing all the hard work of actually climbing. The belayer appears to just stand there, flicking rope around and grunting occasional encouragement. In reality, the belayer is much more than just a human anchor for the glory bound climber. The beauty of rock climbing as a metaphor for management is that climbing strips away all the extra junk that often obscures our view of what management really does. On the rock, there’s just a climber and a belayer. The climber climbs, using the rope and gear placed in the rock. The belayer feeds the rope to the climber and offers encouragement. What follows are a few thoughts on what managers can learn from belayers.
The belayer serves serves the climber by providing an important element of the climbing experience–safety. Oftentimes, climbers are so self-involved that they forget how important the belayer is. Climbers strive to get better and better at their sport, but it can’t happen without a good belayer. Good belayers are attuned to the climber’s movements. They know just how long the climber’s arms are, and feed out an appropriate amount of slack, just when the climber needs it. They pay attention to nonverbal clues in the climber’s movements–even small tugs on the rope convey a message to the attuned belayer. Often, climbers move beyond the belayer’s visual horizon, and the belayer has nothing but sound and rope movement to read. At worst, in strong winds and out of sight, the belayer can only respond to the movement of the rope. When serving the climber, the belayer thinks of nothing else. To allow attention to stray is to invite disaster.