Cathy O’Dowd: Climbing Everest, Team Dynamics, and Leadership
“Then I’ve been parachuted in as the token woman who got added at the last minute by the newspaper sponsor to kind of sex up the coverage. So I’m in a desperately awkward position, trying to prove that I’m good enough to be on this mountain. And I was—but I hadn’t come on the team in a way that made that at all clear.”
Cathy O’Dowd was not a fan of sport until she discovered climbing in college. Being on the mountain was a deeply personal challenge—and one that she was good at. One of just two women in the rock climbing club at her university, O’Dowd thrived in the pushy, confident and ambitious environment.
In November of 1995, O’Dowd answered a newspaper ad, and six months later she was part of a highly-publicized expedition to the summit of Mount Everest. Fraught by a failing team dynamic, the climb proved difficult. And when the group got caught in a storm during their descent, their success in reaching the top was overshadowed by an epic failure to protect each other.
The traumatic experience, along with the media firestorm that followed, proved stressful. But it also opened O’Dowd’s life in ways both extraordinary and important, leading her to a 20-year career as an internationally acclaimed motivational speaker and author. The first South African reach the top of Everest and the first woman to climb from both sides, O’Dowd draws on her Himalayan experiences to illustrate themes around leadership, team dynamic, project management and motivation.
Today, O’Dowd is exploring the Pyrenees mountains near her home in Andorra while she launches The Business of Adventure, a project designed to help aspiring adventurers build their brands and secure funding for their projects. On this episode of the Female Insight Zone, she shares the valuable lessons she learned from the team failure of the first Everest expedition, explaining how it proved vital to her personal development and the insight around leadership she gained from the experience. Listen in to learn about her current adventure as an entrepreneur and how she is working to support the next generation of adventurers.
Key Interview Takeaways
The greatest challenge of climbing Everest was navigating a failing team dynamic. O’Dowd was shocked at how badly adult professionals behaved in the situation, sabotaging themselves and the project.
Dealing with the wave of negative publicity in the wake of her Everest experience was very difficult, but O’Dowd counts it as vital to her personal development. Enduring such a public failure made her realize how deeply limiting a life spent avoiding risk can be.
You cannot control the entire narrative. The best you can do is to simply try and do the right thing by your own standards, knowing that the people who love you will believe you.
Personal leadership implies that every person carries a responsibility to the group. It is not enough to identify the failings of the leadership that is in place; you must be willing to take responsibility for your own participation and to step into a temporary leadership role if need be.
The best leaders are flexible, and they take the time to build credibility and trust throughout the process. If you want participants to follow your instructions quickly and without argument in a time of crisis, it is important that you take time early on to establish a consensus-driven team dynamic.
The Business of Adventure acknowledges that funding is necessary to establish a career as a professional adventurer. Beyond the opportunity to connect with the younger generation, O’Dowd’s new project seeks to help aspiring adventurers understand the preparation, planning and financial backing necessary to pursue a safe, successful career in the field—or on the mountain.
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