People tend to fall backwards into a swimming pool, or off a mountain. In my case, I fell backwards into my business, and from that perspective, knowing what coaching question, or questions to ask in decisive moments in your life and business really matter.
Having led two expeditions to Mount Everest, one from the Tibet side and the other from Nepal, I often get asked questions about the climb, as well as mountaineering. These questions range from the curious (“What do you guys eat up there?”) to the abstract (“Why would you even want to suffer like that?”).
My interest to climb, and eventually, at some stage attempt Mt Everest stemmed from a deep curiosity in figuring out what I was capable of achieving.
The interesting thing about mountaineering is the series of decisions and actions that could determine success, failure, or in some cases, whether you come back at
Everest itself is still the highest mountain and that explains it’s perennial popularity, although the experience of climbing it has changed a lot since my climbs in 1998 and 2001
When I revived the idea that a team from the flat, tropical city-state of Singapore could succeed at climbing Mt Everest, the idea itself was laughed at in many quarters.
The Internet was just being embraced by Asia, and Singapore was abuzz with the culture of making money and material success.
The highest building here is 280-metres above sea-level, the highest peak, 161-metres. Not exactly ideal conditions for developing a team for Everest.
Sure, we had a lot of technical rock-climbing experience, but only mud walls to sink our ice axe picks into. The right preparation involved a lot more equipment, leadership, team dynamics, endless fundraising, and then pulling off a number of expeditions to 6,000m, 7,000m and 8,000m peaks.
I’ll fast forward the tale by nearly four years to when we had raised the funds and had finally reached Everest.
The journey up to Everest involves a series of yo-yo like steps where you climb to establish successively higher campsites and acclimatize to the altitude; and then descend to let your bodies build up more red blood cells.
With greater oxygen-carrying ability, you climb up again, move equipment you placed earlier and press up higher, repeating the process.
We had successfully placed and stocked our campsites, and with a decent window of good weather in mid-May, began to make the four-day summit push.
Leading four other members of my team on the summit push, I was climbing well until the persistent cough that affects many climbers became so virulent and violent, I cracked two ribs as a result.
The “Khumbu Koff”, nicknamed after the region where Everest is located, is a pernicious condition brought about by the persistent super-dry and cold atmosphere at over 5000 metres.
Lying in my tent with knives stabbing my side at every cough or sneeze; hopes of my own summit success faded away quickly.
I lay in a deep blue funk, feeling depressed and sorry for myself until the following morning when I asked myself, what I have later discovered to be one of the ultimate coaching questions:
“What do you want now?”
I sat there for a while thinking until the answer I came up with was “I want the team to succeed, even if I am unable to reach the top myself”. That thought immediately galvanized me into action.
I was still the team leader of the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition – and I could still contribute in so many ways.
I started devising a way I could retreat down the mountain safely with my injury. I also swapped my far lighter alloy ice-axe and crampons with Edwin’s heavier steel axe and crampons. Edwin, one of the youngest and least experienced in the team had been invited to accompany the summit team to Advanced base camp half way up.
He took my place, and with my lighter gear, joined the rest of the summit team. That team did not succeed in reaching the top, owing to a lack of fixed rope to protect the trickiest parts of the route. They and 30 other climbers came within 150 vertical metres of the summit and turned back.
I then asked myself and the team a series of questions, each one exploratory and divergent; gathering as many views and opinions, exploring the strength of commitment to mount a 2nd attempt with the resources we still had.
Four days later, Edwin was one of the two climbers I picked for the 2nd and final attempt on the summit. He reached the top first; using my ice axe and crampons. I didn’t make the top that year, but my hardware did!
The question I used to coach myself is one I refer to now as a powerful ‘future-forwarding” question. The answer it demands can’t lie in the past. You can’t change the past, but you can influence the future. It’s a coaching question that can be transformational as it asks for some future action towards a goal.
A week after our triumphant return home as ‘national heroes’, to a country rather lacking in sporting celebrities, I fell ill from a rare nerve disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or GBS.
In GBS, your body’s own immune system goes out of whack and attacks your nerves thinking it’s the enemy; destroying nerve tissue, and rendering you paralysed.
In my case, I was paralysed from eyes downwards, and for a long time could only move my left eyelid. That eyelid, and an adroit use of an alphabet chart by a bedside visitor - was my sole link to reality.
Eventually, nerves re-grew, but progress was painfully slow. I met each day with the question:
“So, what are we going to achieve today?”
The question helped me focus on the simple tasks like walking 10 metres with the help of aids, or with a physiotherapist in tow.
After 43 days on a ventilator, and six months in hospital, I left with permanent disabilities in my lower legs.
A few months later, companies began to ask me to deliver “motivational presentations”.
These were well received and set me up for my current business but even then, the best outcomes from a business perspective have always been the quality of the questions I ask.
When a senior decision maker is asked a candid probing question, proof comes when they say “That’s a very good question”.
I am proud when land a training / coaching / speaking engagement because of the quality of the questions I asked, rather than the assertions I make.
I have learned how to be an executive coach and facilitator in a group coaching context.
My journey as speaker and coach hasn’t ended yet, nor has my love for the mountains and the climbs I have planned.
You never know what life has planned, but keep asking the right questions and you’ll start getting better quality answers.
David Lim is a motivational speaker, coach, and best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition.
Since 1999, he has helped organizations motivate teams and grow leaders.
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