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Leadership of Climber Arlene Blum Research Paper

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In October 1978, after a long struggle against female discrimination in mountaineering, an experienced climber Arlene Blum managed to organize an expedition of women to attempt ascending one of the Himalaya’s most challenging peaks, Annapurna. To secure the physical and moral readiness of her team for the defiance of the sacred heights, Blum summoned the most experienced climbers united by the same shared dream to conquer the Himalayas. However, the range of backgrounds and ages in the team varied: there were Vera Watson, a 46-year-old computer scientist; Irene Miller, a 42-year-old physicist with two daughters; Joan Firey, a 49-year-old artist, and physical therapist; Piro Kramar, a 40-year-old surgeon; Alison Chadwick, a 36-year-old artist; Vera Komarkova, a 35-year-old plant ecologist; Elizabeth Klobusicky, a 34-year-old English teacher; and two university students, a 21-year-old Annie Whitehouse and a 20-year-old Margi Rushmore (Useem, 1998, pp. 98–99). This mixed company aimed to conquer Annapurna under the common expedition slogan, “A Woman’s Place Is On Top” (Useem, 1998, p. 99).

Having summoned six tones of food supplies and equipment, the expedition of ten women accompanied by porters and Sherpas planned to proceed along with one of the most dangerous routes to the top — the “Sickle” route — and to establish five camps on the way of their ascent (Useem, 1998, p. 101). One of the major obstacles on their way were the endless avalanches that descended at random and thus presented a deadly trap for the climbers. However, Blum did not stop in the face of avalanches and, after a discussion with the team members who voiced a hesitant desire to go on, decided on proceeding with the expedition. Having passed the more dangerous fragment of their way, the team faced another challenge.

Since a limited number can make the ascent of the top of climbers for safety reasons, there had to be a selection among the team members who would proceed with ascending Annapurna after the last camp was established. Considering the ever-growing challenges of the ascent and considering each team member’s desires, Blum suggested a compromise. Initially, she planned for three women to go for the top, followed by a second party of two more women and two Sherpas, and later on by a third party of whoever still wanted to take their chance of conquering the peak. After the Sherpas voiced their desire to join the first party and not to participate in the last ascents, the plan was changed: the first party consisted of Miller, Komarkova, Kramar, and Sherpas; the second comprised Chadwick, Watson, and Whitehouse; the third team was still questioned. Due to frozen limbs, Kramar was forced to stay back, and Miller, Komarkova, and Sherpas completed the first ascent. Whitehouse renounced her rise since she did not feel safe with it. The two remaining women of the second party set off by themselves despite the absence of oxygen supplies and Blum’s warning of the enterprise riskiness.

Leadership issues

During the expedition, Arlene Blum had to assume the leader’s role and could not avoid facing specific leadership issues. The first and foremost difficulty she encountered was launching the expedition that had to be transferred from the usual civilized conditions into the environment of wilderness and environmental challenges. A totally different approach was applied in the latter case: while Blum normally strove for friendliness and cooperativeness, the harsh conditions of the expedition demanded rigid control and command of the daily routine. Despite having experience in heading expeditions, Blum faced a qualitatively new situation of ascending one of the world’s most challenging peaks and had to assume a new leadership approach that would involve obtaining constant feedback on her activities as a leader and thus improving her position and leadership skills.

Blum, as a leader, had to demonstrate strength and decisiveness, at the same time contributing to the everyday decisions. In this, she confronted the second leadership issue of managing the various individual motives that were leading the members of the expedition to their common goal. For this purpose, it was vital to recognize and understand the varied reasons that were drawing the team together and to manipulate those motives in such a way that their effect would contribute to achieving the general success. By large, completing this issue was made difficult by another complication in the mountaineering practice: only a few of the expedition members could actually reach the top, and therefore the rest had to remain underneath. But for the purpose of the peak ascent, everybody’s energy and contribution were necessary; thus, Blum had to keep the intrigue and the competition going so that every climber had her chance of overcoming the challenges of the ascent.

Additionally, the practice of mountaineering has shown that nobody can ever be sure of successfully reaching the peak: uncertainty is one of the main driving engines of climbing strategies. In regard to this, Blum faced the challenge of manipulating fate in such a way that it promoted successful and adequate action from her fellow-climbers to achieve their goal. In the case of the climber’s overly-expressed doubt about the success of their ascent, Blum had to mitigate their uncertainty by encouraging them to go on. And vice versa, in case of excessive optimism and self-assurance, Blum had to diminish those feelings by providing extra cautious advice and thus trying to increase the climbers’ discretion.

Last but not least, another leadership issue Blum had to solve was connected with the fact that she was actually leading not just an expedition but a cause. Having launched an extensive national campaign for support of the all-women journey under the “A Woman’s Place Is On Top” slogan, Blum took on the responsibility of not merely leading a group of women to a high mountain peak but of defending the women’s right to occupy significant positions in the sphere of adventure, exploration, and discovery in front of the whole world. While managing such a responsible task, Blum had to balance on the dangerous verge between fulfilling the significant outside expectations of the world as a whole and preserving the inside safety of the group she was leading.

Leadership strength and weaknesses

In her functioning as a leader, Arlene Blum demonstrated both the advantageous and the disadvantageous sides of her leadership activities. To begin with, she found herself in a totally new environment when she launched the Annapurna ascent, and this novelty demonstrated her unreadiness to exercise the critical qualities needed for a leader in that situation. Although Blum initially displayed her decisiveness in the conflict with Joan Firey over buying expensive food supplies for the expedition, she generally tended to reveal her friendly collaborative nature when debatable issues were at stake. Thus, for example, she tried to draw such a scheme of the summit ascent that everybody would remain satisfied in their ambition to conquer the peak. This decision was a significant blunder since, for one thing, the creation of several summit groups did not benefit the general-purpose (one group’s success was enough for achieving it), and for another thing, it put the mountaineers under the unnecessary risks of another ascent. The implications for the group were that the expected members of the two last summit teams could not be sure that they would indeed undertake the final climb, and thus their personal motivation for proceeding with the expedition dropped dramatically.

Additionally, Blum’s plans of attack on the slope were initially made solely by her and simply announced to the team members. This naturally provoked a feeling of her preconception and unfairness to individual team members whose interests were not fully met. As a result, she did not receive much group support, as the climbers were not united by striving to solve a common problem but rather divided by pursuing their own unsatisfied objectives. This situation was further worsened by the overly attentive attitude Blum took to separate the individual motives of her team-mates. Rather than creating a united team of confederates, she found herself struggling in a tug-of-war between the climbers contesting among themselves for ‘place at the top.’

In hindsight, the aforementioned blunders could have been avoided should Blum have taken a more decisive approach to create and managing her team. For one thing, she should have made it clear to the climbers that despite their own various motives, they were pursuing a common goal that should never be overshadowed by their personal ambition. Nor should the pursuit of that goal or private purpose lead to endangering the safety of the whole expedition or its separate members. It was vital to make the climbers understand that both their leader and their fellows were linked together not only with a rope but also with mutual responsibility: what happened to one, happened to all, be it victory or loss (Wright, 2005, p. 144).

Together with weaknesses, Blum demonstrated specific leadership strengths during the ascent of Annapurna. For example, she showed skillful managing of uncertainty, encouraging the crestfallen climbers on their way between two camps on the one hand. On the other hand, she attempted to lessen the overly optimistic of summit group two climbers when they were setting on their journey too carelessly. In this way, Blum tried to keep their motivation and focus on achieving the goal.

Personal statement

The situation of the Annapurna ascent teaches several valuable lessons to be applied to my unique leadership style. For the purpose of dealing efficiently with such a case, I doubt that I would have chosen Blum’s way of handling the issue. Firstly, her leadership style appears too soft for me: in the extreme conditions of the mountains, not only the prestige of the enterprise but also human safety is of primary importance to me as a leader. Knowing that the leader bears significant responsibility for the wellbeing of the team, I would stipulate cooperation for the general — and not individual — right as the primary strategy of team relations. As a way of motivation, I would choose not only energizing and encouraging but also exhorting on the basis of self-sacrifice for the general aim (Baldoni, 2005, p. 9). Open discussion and cooperation would be the critical elements in the decision-making process, but decision-taking would be done on the basis of that discussion by the leader only and should not be disputed. This would be the best way to ensure safety and general objective attainment in the severe conditions of mountain ascent.

Questions

Was Blum’s initial aspiration for leading the cause gradually substituted by simple fear for the climbers’ safety? Did Blum reveal herself as a strong leader or as a weak one when she let the second party undertake the final summit? Did Blum succeed in defending the common cause despite the accident with the second climbing party?

References

Baldoni, John. (, 2005). Great motivation secrets of great leaders. Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill.

Useem, M. (1998). Arlene Blum ascends Annapurna. In Michael Useem, The leadership moment: nine true stories of triumph and disaster and their lessons for us all (pp. 94–126). New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Wright, W. C. (2005). Don’t step on the rope: Reflections on leadership, relationships, and teamwork. Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Press.

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