What I Learned from Alex Honnold…

What I Learned from Alex Honnold…

Like many young boys, I was an adventurer. I was always climbing trees, exploring caves, and climbing hills, mountains, and rocks near my home in Russellville AR. I spent many weekends climbing around Mt. Nebo, Mt. Magazine and (one of my favorites) Dardanelle Rock. I was intrigued by the climbers who would strap on a harness and tackle dizzying heights like El Capitan in Yosemite.

In the early days, climbers would pack supplies and spend days summiting the face of El Cap. As a young teen, I would dream of sleeping in a tent attached by ropes over a thousand feet in the air. I had the privilege of meeting Sir. Edmund Hillary Jr. several years back, and added the fascination of the elite climbers who would tackle the summit of Mt. Everest.

And then, I discovered Alex Honnold. This tall, unassuming young man has been climbing most of his life. My first exposure to Alex was a movie trailer for Free Solo. I watched in unbelief as this young man was attempting one of the most dangerous feats of climbing known to man – climbing without the protection of a safety line. And, he was climbing the face of a 3000+ foot sheer granite mountain with his bare hands.

As you listen to Alex’s story, this is something he always wanted to do. At the time of the filming of this documentary, Alex was perhaps the only elite free soloist in the world still alive. There is NO margin for error. As you watch the documentary, you discover the intense amount of preparation Alex goes through to get ready for this ascent.

Countless hours climbing down El Cap to work through transitions, mapping the course he would take as he scaled this sheer, granite wall. The physical and mental preparation, honing his body and his mind to attempt something not previously accomplished by anyone on planet earth. The film crew made their preparations and waited for Alex to decide the crucial “when” of the ascent. And one crisp morning, he began to climb.

The rest, shall we say, is history.

In record time, Alex Honnold had accomplished a feat previously thought impossible. He had climbed, without the assistance of ropes or safety lines, perhaps the pinnacle of rock climbing in America. Alex had free-soloed El Capitan.

As I pondered Alex’s feat, I began to look for lessons to be learned…something I could take away from this experience and apply to my own life – becoming a better version of myself in the process. My initial takeaway from Alex’s free-solo summit of El Capitan was the importance of PREPARATION!

Leaders are by default people of action. They see more, and they see before. And once they see, they take action. While this is a valuable character trait, leaders must also make sure they are decisive in their actions. By definition, being decisive is making decisions quickly and effectively. Decisive is not just being quick, it is also being effective.

The gap between being quick to act and acting effective is where preparation comes in.

When you’re thousands of feet up the sheer face of a mountain with no rope, no safety line, it’s you and the mountain. This is not the time to be second-guessing your decision or wishing you had taken the time to think through your decision before acting.

It is preparation that can make the difference between summiting the challenging mountain of opportunity before you or plummeting to your death because you lost your grip or footing. You must be sure of your decision, and your action, if you’re going to free solo.

As a leader, developing the leaders around you to also make preparation a part of their planning process can pay huge dividends. This starts with modeling preparation in the way you engage in your own planning process and empowering them to do likewise. It’s an opportunity to “think” into the challenges and opportunities before taking action.

Whiteboarding ideas, putting plans in writing, building some structure, steps, and timelines in the process, and assigning personnel and resources accordingly keeps everyone on the Team focused and moving in the same direction. This type of preparation is invaluable but often overlooked by leaders.

In martial arts and self-defense training, we remind students that “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” We teach them to meticulously work through the techniques, slowly and deliberately. Not only are they building confidence, like Alex they are building the muscle memory so they can perform flawlessly when under the stress of the moment. This is preparation, equipping students to be prepared to respond to a threat.

Going back to El Cap, Alex took the time to rehearse his ascent in steps or phases. This preparation step allowed him to gain confidence as he mastered each phase of the ascent. Again, “thinking” into the opportunity (and the challenge) and methodically finding a workable solution led to flawless execution on El Capitan.

You may not face an El Capitan moment, but you will face challenges as you pursue the opportunities before you. And if the opportunities before you are El Capitan sized, you will also face mountain-sized challenges. You must be decisive in your preparation, your planning, and your execution.

The gap between being quick to act and acting effective is where preparation comes in. Preparation sets the stage for future performance.

Thanks, Alex, for demonstrating the power of preparation. Thanks for being a Black Belt Leader in Life. Congratulations on being the first to free solo El Capitan. I can’t wait to see your next great adventure. Keep leading, keep influencing, keep making a difference.

ABOUT ALEX HOLLAND: Alex Honnold is a professional adventure rock climber whose audacious free-solo ascents of America’s biggest cliffs have made him one of the most recognized and followed climbers in the world. A gifted but hard-working athlete, Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold is known as much for his humble, self-effacing attitude as he is for the dizzyingly tall cliffs he has climbed without a rope to protect him if he falls. Honnold has been profiled by 60 Minutes and the New York Times, featured on the cover of National Geographic, appeared in international television commercials and starred in numerous adventure films including the Emmy-nominated “Alone on the Wall.”


by John Terry

2X martial arts Hall of Fame inductee, John Terry (The Black Belt Leader) is passionate about helping others become Black Belt Leaders in Life. He is a motivational speaker, leadership, sales & communication coach and trainer.