On a recent plane trip to Sri Lanka, I found myself sitting next to a man by the name of Johann Peries – coincidentally, both of us had missed our flight from Kuala Lumpur the previous day. It turned out that earlier this year, Johann was one of two Sri Lankans who attempted to be the first of their countrymen to climb Mount Everest.
Johann is a prominent hair stylist/designer in Sri Lanka. In 2011, he happened to mention to a client that it was his childhood dream to climb Mount Everest. His client promptly introduced him to Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, a gender activist, who shared the same dream.
Johann and Jayanthi spent the next six years planning for the climb and training together. They gained mountaineering experience by climbing several peaks. In 2011, they scaled Island Peak in the Himalayas, and in 2014 they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. They climbed mountains in South Africa, Thailand and the United Kingdom too. They also went rock climbing at every opportunity, including in the Spanish Pyrenees and Argentinian Andes.
Johann and Jayanthi were fortunate enough to get the chance to climb Everest a few months ago, three years after an avalanche claimed 16 lives on the mountain, and two years since the Nepal earthquake that killed 9000 people, both events shutting down climbing attempts for a while. In the wake of these tragedies came triumph – in May this year, Jayanthi climbed 8848 metres to stand on top of the world, the first Sri Lankan to do so.
It wasn’t an easy climb. Jayanthi had been slow on an early part of the ascent. Her guides had cautioned her that unless she was up to speed by a certain time, she would not be allowed to attempt the summit. Anxious to avoid failure on summit day, she made a marathon effort to get to the peak, as if her life depended on it. She took almost no breaks and pushed herself to reach the top, where she arrived at 5:03 am on 21 May. She surprised everyone with her great feat, including herself.
Johann told me there was a lot of traffic on the mountain that day, and it was important that all the climbers adhere to the agreed timing. Unfortunately, a few of his fellow climbers were too slow and it resulted in Johann running low on oxygen. Just 300 metres short of the summit, he was told by his Sherpa guide that he would have to turn around.
At that moment, Johann thought of his loved ones, his clients, his sponsors, and how people would remember him for his near-win. From where he stood, stuck at the end of a line of slow climbers, and running short of oxygen, Johann could see the lights at the summit. But he had no choice but to turn back. It was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. His goal was so near, yet it was still far from his reach.
Jayanthi, his mountaineering partner, later shed tears when she found out that Johann hadn’t made it. It had been their dream to reach the summit together.
While Jayanthi had climbed slowly, she had made it to the peak with the support of her teammates. Johann, despite being physically stronger, didn’t reach the summit due to circumstances that were beyond his control.
But even though Johann didn’t reach the peak, he still received a hero’s welcome on his safe return home to Sri Lanka. People celebrated his brave effort in climbing Mount Everest, despite his unsuccessful attempt to get to the top.
‘It has made me stronger’, Johann told me. ‘Mentally and spiritually, I feel completely changed. I can still say that I’ve stood on one of the highest places in the world.’
The climb has also changed Jayanthi personally. Although she was not the strongest or the fastest in the group, her feat in conquering Mount Everest through sheer willpower has renewed her strength and her commitment to furthering the cause of women in society.
As the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary once said, ‘It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves’.
I had a chance to share Johann and Jayanthi’s story at a Unilever Sales Conference. My key message was that both effort and success need to be acknowledged accordingly.
In the real corporate world, the environment you’re in plays a significant role in ensuring sustainable success for your team. If you want your team to win, it needs to move at the same pace as you. Essentially, we are only as strong as our weakest links.
Likewise, the less-strong members of your team can be challenged to go beyond how they see themselves to fulfil their greatest potential – when they have the right support from others in the team.
My question to you is this: Are you ready to conquer your own Mount Everest?
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About Bharat Avalani
Bharat is a Unilever Veteran who has crisscrossed 67 countries. He comes with 25 years of experience in Brand Management, Consumer Insights, Media Strategy, Brand Activation, Market Development and Integrated Brand Communications. He is the CEO of Connecting the Dots Consultancy and a Partner of Anecdote who delivers the Storytelling for Leaders® Program.
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