Pretending To Know

Thom Porro is a funny, good natured, candid, authentic and lithe man at the top of his game. A CEO in Seattle, he is part of an executives group there and coached by Susan Scott. A few years ago Don Aubrey (another member of that group) and Thom started mountain climbing together. At first they did day trips, then a few weeks trip to Alaska. This day a four man team was mounting their most ambitious attempt yet – Mount Rainier. The four person party had split up into two two’s. Don had paired up with JJ – an experienced female climber – to go ahead and make base camp first. Thom joined Mike – the climb leader four hours later.

Half way to base camp Don and JJ came to a glacier where bamboo poles marked the recommended path around a deep crevasse. A snow bridge offered an enticingly more direct route. It seemed solid but after Don carefully examined the crevasse, they decided against it and went the longer path. They arrived at base camp later that day and began preparations for the rest of the team. Meanwhile Thom and Mike arrived at the glacier at 2 in the afternoon. They sat down to eat some lunch and reviewed the situation. They also discussed route options – the snow bridge or the bamboo poles. Thom was leading this next section of the climb.

“I vote for the snow bridge,” Thom declared,shouldering his pack. Thom moved quickly, without roping up to Mike. Mike stood quickly, in time to see Thom’s head disappear as the snow bridge collapsed beneath him. As Thom fell, nearly seven stories, he glanced off the ice walls. Each hit broke something – a rib, an ankle, a cheekbone, his eye socket and then slam – an ice shelf. It took hours to extract him from the narrow icebox and evacuated to hospital.

Don and JJ could not return down the mountain at such a late hour. The next day they retreated to the city, getting their photos developed before visiting Thom in hospital. When they walked into the ward the first thing Thom said was, “That crevasse came out of nowhere!” Don swallowed. This was a moment of truth. The executive group in Seattle had many robust conversations during their time together, and this would be no exception. Don took a deep breath and said, “You look like hell buddy. I’m awful glad you’re alive. But that crevasse didn’t come out of nowhere. It was risky enough at ten in the morning. Look at this photo. You got there four hours later, hours later under the melting full sun. What were you pretending not to know?” (1)

What a great question! What am I pretending not to know? In mountain climbing, in business, at home. What am I turning a blind eye to? This powerful question forms part of the leadership training exercise I do with leadership teams. The guys at Grace Crowd tackled it this weekend – each answering for themselves personally and corporately. Then we did a Q&A on the team as a whole, “What is the elephant standing in the room (that we’re all pretending isn’t there)?”