I belay you, you belay me.

In April, I became a fellow with American Leadership Forum Silicon Valley. ALF has a long history of creating courageous, diverse networks of cross sector leaders who are working towards an equitable and thriving Silicon Valley. I’m honored to have been nominated and to be able to participate (thanks Twitter!).

We meet once a month on Fridays in sessions where we dialogue, differ, and build relationships. Partway into the year-long program, we journeyed to the wilderness together – no cell service, no families or loved ones, no laptops. Some of us had never camped before. Some hadn’t been “off the grid” in more than a decade. Many had real concerns about the people and pets that depend on them. Yet, we took a collective deep breath, pulled up our courage, and climbed aboard the bus.

I knew the past few months had been stressful for me in multiple ways, but it wasn’t until I sat in the circle, the morning of our first full day at camp, that I realized just how much a toll the stress had taken. Exhausted, and teary during our check in, I shared that despite being surrounded by natural beauty, one of my very favorite things, I felt numb. I couldn’t engage with the things going on around me. I couldn’t figure out why the tears wouldn’t stop flowing.

A short time later, two different fellows connected with me: “Kathleen, you’ve been through a lot! It’s no wonder you’re feeling this way.” These simple gifts of validation had real power. As leaders, we can meet people where they are through this kind of validation. I belay you, you belay me.

In the afternoon that day, we went rock climbing. Most of us had never climbed a rock or even knew what the word “belay” meant: to secure (a rope) by attaching to a person or to an object offering stable support. The belay device causes the rope to make turns that add friction, and this friction effectively multiplies the belayer’s strength by 5x. We learned that while the rock climber is choosing where to climb and how fast or high to go, the belayer has more than just a supporting role. Communication is key between the two. And when you’re on the rock, you want to have a belayer who is laser focused on you, giving you the slack or tautness you need, making sure you’re able to reach the top of the climb safely. As leaders, we can provide this kind of focus. I belay you, you belay me.

We had many more tough conversations, laughs, mosquito bites, and other adventures through the week, including summiting a peak (elevation 8500). There were times we “lost hold of the rope” for each other, didn’t have someone’s back, and had to regroup. But there were also countless displays of generosity and support – and every single one of us made it to the summit. By Friday, I felt completely rejuvenated. I belay you, you belay me.

I’ve been through plenty of workshops, trainings and seminars about leadership, but this experience was really different. Two key takeaways from my experience: 1) In order to share privilege (i.e. belay someone), you have to believe you have power. 2) We tend to lead in ways that cause half the folks around us to “fall off the mountain” on the way to the peak. So the question is, how do we create mutually supportive mechanisms where everyone gets to the summit? Now I know that’s possible. I belay you, you belay me.

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