How a cold and rainy mountain climb made us a better team

We were half way up Mount Tanigawa (local nickname: Mountain of Death) in the Japanese Alps when one of the members of our group faltered. The terrain was rocky and steep. The weather was cold and rainy. We stopped right there, as a group, to wait as he rested and recovered. Other groups in our party passed us and continued to the summit, but we waited until we could all move forward together.

Why were we doing this? Why climb a dangerous mountain in the cold rain?

Every year during Rakuten’s annual executive summit, we cap two days of discussion and planning with a climb up Mount Tanigawa. It is always a challenge. We are business executives, not professional mountain climbers, and Mount Tanigawa is a difficult climb under the best of conditions.

This year, the conditions were bad. Yet it may have been our most meaningful climb ever.

In that climb, we experienced the true nature of teamwork. Over 100 of us met at the base of the mountain at sunrise and formed into groups of 6 or 7 to start on the climb. When one of our members needed rest, we all waited. So we were not first to the top, so what? It was not a race; it was a journey.

It was a test for me as a CEO and leader of the teams there. I had said at the start that each group should go up together and come down together. That was my mandate. But it was my group that was severely tested. As we stopped on the side, other groups caught up to us and I felt the weight of my own direction. I waved the other groups past us so we could catch our breath and prepare ourselves for the final stages of the climb.

What’s more, this was also a test of my own physical strength. I ruptured my Achilles tendon earlier this year. A mountain climb in difficult conditions was no small challenge to my newly-healed injury.

But, I faced the challenges as part of a team. At the top, I stayed quiet and let my team express how they felt in that moment of accomplishment. They earned this moment by rising to the difficult challenge together. When pictures were taken to commemorate our success, we naturally came together in groups, to capture that shared feeling of achievement.

Later, back safe and dry at ground level, there were plenty of jokes and good humor about the conditions we’d endured. But I was glad for the storm and the challenge it gave us. We are all better leaders because of it.

Our motto for the summit had been “get things done.” By climbing the mountain in the rain, we had gotten things done, under difficult conditions, with our teammates. If we could climb that mountain as a team, what couldn’t we accomplish in our daily work?

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