How Not to Lead a Team Climbing a Volcano — Part 1

Leaders are not a result of their title — they are a result of their actions.

We all know that great leaders understand their responsibility and know how to inspire and engage their teams to accomplish amazing results. This story isn’t about one of those leaders, instead, it is about what not to be or do as a leader.

If you’re willing to take a journey up a volcano with me, I am certain you will discover meaningful lessons that could transform you as a leader.


In 2007 I was given an amazing, once in a lifetime opportunity to take on an expatriate work assignment and move to Japan. I was beyond thrilled to be selected for this assignment. My move meant that I would live in a new city and work with a new manager and a new team. I needed to become familiar with a new language, new culture, new everything! I was one of only two American assignees in a department of more than 300 Japanese team members. We were chosen to drive process improvements and to enhance the communication between the Japanese and U.S. teams.

As I arrived in the Tokyo office, I felt both excited and intimidated. I walked into my new manager’s office and saw him sitting behind a big brown wooden desk. His name was Steve and he had moved there a year prior to me. He was a tall American man who wore a big smile and a well-groomed formal looking black suit with a blue tie. Seeing me, he stood up and enthusiastically welcomed me to the team with a big hug. Afterwards, we both sat down to talk. I immediately noticed a pile of brightly colored pamphlets of Mount Fuji stacked on the left side of his desk.

“I want to share with you a vision that I have,” Steve began. “The morale of our department has been very low recently, and I would like to plan a team building activity in order to improve it.” He picked up one of the pamphlets at the top of the pile and handed it to me, then continued: “Wouldn’t it be a great idea for our team to climb Mount Fuji together?”

As I held the pamphlet and looked at it, I froze while my heart started beating fast. Mount Fuji is 12,388-foot — eight times the height of the Empire State Building. As I was looking at the picture of the enormous mountain on the pamphlet, I kept thinking about how Mount Fuji appears to be a dormant volcano, but could erupt at any moment! I remembered reading an article a few years earlier about the high-levels of seismic activity under the volcano, raising concern about a future eruption. I had an extreme fear of heights and had absolutely no desire to climb this ticking lava bomb. So, I was silently praying that he would not ask me to join.

“You’re IN right?” he asked, looking directly into my eyes. I have never climbed a mountain before. I am definitely not in shape and was not expecting to have this conversation. I don’t know how it happened, but I heard myself reply: “Yes! I can do it!”

Steve immediately threw his arms up in the air with excitement and said: “We will climb it together as a team, step by step!”

He leaned over the desk towards me and said in a serious voice: “There are many leadership lessons you will learn from climbing a mountain.” I couldn’t wait to hear his leadership wisdom, but what he said next took me off-guard, “Your priorities and the scenery around you will change with every higher level you reach. The view of the people at the base changes, as well. They become smaller and smaller until they disappear, then you can no longer see or hear them as you are reaching the top.”

I sat there stunned in silence. This was the worst leadership lesson I had ever heard. What did he mean that as he climbed higher people at the base disappeared? It made it sound as though they did not matter. I hoped his attitude regarding leadership was not a negative foreshadowing on the hike, but it was too late. I had already agreed to climb the mountain with him as my leader.


Initially, 40 team members were interested in the hike. The team-building adventure sounded like it was going to be a big success! However, as the date neared, one by one, team members began to change their minds about the hike, concerned about the intensity of the physical activity. Their doubt fed my doubts too, and I continued to question what I had gotten myself into.

When the week of the hike arrived, only four of us remained — Steve, Moto-san (Mr. Moto), Okubo-san (Mr. Okubo), and me. Moto-san was in his sixties and was retiring that same month. I privately questioned why he would choose to spend his last week of work climbing a volcano. Okubo-san was an ambitious man with goals of a management role in the future. He had joined our hiking team to learn about leadership, as well.


Most hikers start the climb from the middle of the mountain, known as the fifth station. The top of the mountain, known as the tenth station, and there were four stations in between. Our plan was simple: we would take two local trains, a bullet train, and then a bus from Tokyo to the fifth station. From there, we would have a six to seven hour hike to the eighth station, where we would stay for the night in a lodge. The following day, we would wake up at 2 am to continue the hike for another two hours until we reached the tenth station, the peak of the mountain. Then, after experiencing the sunrise, we would hike down the same day for five to six hours back to the base of the mountain.

Like many plans…it sounded good in theory, but the reality was going to be something else entirely.

Finally, the day arrived. We met early in the morning at the busy train station in Roppongi in the middle of Tokyo. The four of us were energized and ready for our leadership adventure.

Everything went according to plan, and after hours of multiple train and bus rides, we arrived at the fifth station. When we finally stepped off the bus, were already exhausted. Each of us was weighed down by our heavy backpacks filled with layers and layers of clothes, oxygen bottles, energy bars, and bottles of water. The sun was shining and the clear blue sky with some clouds towards the top of the mountain served as a beautiful backdrop for the mountain looming above us. We were surrounded by hot and dense August air that was filled with humidity and were looking forward to the temperature dropping as we ascend the mountain

Despite our long journey there, our team was in a great mood and ready to begin our adventure together, step-by-step.

And that’s when the nightmare of leadership began. All of a sudden, Steve turned towards us and said: “Let’s play a game.” We furrowed our brows in confusion and waited for him to continue. I thought maybe this was going to be some special leadership technique he was going to share with us. Then he announced, “Let’s see who gets to the top first!”

And, before we could comprehend what he meant, Steve, our leader, who had the map and the reservations for the lodge in his backpack, put in his headphones, turned his music on loud, left us standing there and started his hike up the mountain.

Read Part Two Here



Empowering and advancing individuals in leadership through keynote speeches, workshops, training programs, and individual coaching. Visit

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dima Ghawi

Empowering and advancing individuals in leadership through keynote speeches, workshops, training programs, and individual coaching. Visit