Reaching the top: What I learned on my big climb (GUEST COLUMN)

By Jennifer Garbowicz, private client advisor and senior vice president, Bank of America Private Bank

In July 2023, I realized a dream and conquered a challenge when I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa.

The total duration of the climb took about five and a half days up the mountain and one and a half days down. The climb was a retreat and included 19 other inspiring people from six different countries and ranging in the ages of 17 to 73. We had a support team of more than 80 people — porters, guides and chefs.

For me, the most mentally, and physically, challenging part of the climb was summit night. The conditions were fierce with below freezing temperatures and high winds but our group powered through, while functioning on little sleep, in the dark and in the high altitude. We summitted the mountain at Uhuru Peak, early the morning of July 14, and were instantly overwhelmed with emotion—elation, relief and pride.

I learned the experience wasn’t about conquering the mountain after all. It was about transformation and self-discovery. By the end of it, I felt like I was a part of a close-knit “mountain” family that will stick together forever. The lessons I learned on the mountain are infused into both my personal and business life, and here are my top five:

  1. Leadership is everywhere, there is no title necessary

When climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the notion that leadership is ubiquitous became vividly evident. While traditional leadership titles may not have been assigned, the essence of leadership permeated every step of the ascent. From those of us who navigated the challenging terrain to those who provided encouragement and support, leadership manifested through collective decision-making, shared responsibilities and the ability to adapt to challenges. The absence of a formal hierarchy highlighted the concept that leadership is not solely tied to titles but, rather, emerges organically through actions, influence and collaboration. On the slopes of Kilimanjaro, everyone’s contributions formed a mosaic of leadership that propelled the team toward the summit, displaying that true leadership was present in every facet of the journey.

  • When people have the proper support, they can achieve almost anything

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a formidable undertaking and having the right support made all the difference for my climbing group. With experienced guides, proper equipment and a supportive team, we were better equipped to navigate the challenges that the mountain presented. The encouragement, expertise and camaraderie provided by this support system fueled our determination and pushed many of us beyond our perceived limits. As we ascended through changing landscapes and battled altitude, that unwavering support became the driving force that empowered us to conquer the summit. That accomplishment served as a powerful reminder that with the right backing, people can surmount even the most daunting of challenges.

  • There is power in vulnerability

Leaders who demonstrate vulnerability display a distinct and powerful form of authenticity. By embracing, and acknowledging, their own limitations, mistakes and uncertainties, they break down barriers that separate them from their team. Vulnerability fosters empathy, allowing others to relate and connect on a deeper level. I witnessed this firsthand on my climb and it fostered an environment of trust, where we all felt comfortable sharing our own thoughts and concerns. Vulnerable leaders show their team that it is okay to learn from failure and ask for help when needed, encouraging a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement.

  • Create a safe environment and watch the magic happen

Our leaders created a safe environment on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, which laid the foundation for extraordinary achievements. The team felt physically, and emotionally, secure and could focus our energy on conquering the challenges we faced. Guides who prioritized safety and retreat leaders who concentrated on group dynamics fostered a sense of unity and trust among us. In this supportive atmosphere, we were able to push our boundaries, overcome fears and discover untapped potential. As we navigated the rugged terrain and changing conditions, the magic unfolded in our shared vulnerability and collective determination. The summit became not just a destination, but a symbol of the transformative power that arises when people feel secure enough to take risks, work hard and watch aspirations turn into reality.

  • Pole pole (Translates to “slowly, slowly” in Swahili)

The Swahili phrase “pole pole,” meaning “slowly, slowly,” encapsulates a profound wisdom that was especially evident when ascending Mount Kilimanjaro. Embracing this concept, we recognized the value of a gradual pace while navigating the changing landscape of the mountain and high altitude. By going slowly, we allowed our bodies to acclimatize, reducing the risk of altitude sickness and ensuring a safer journey. This philosophy also holds a lesson for leadership. Just as we proceeded cautiously to reach the summit, leaders must navigate their own challenges with patience and care. By moving slowly, leaders can make informed decisions, build trust and create a stable foundation for their teams. The ethos of “pole pole” speaks to the importance of mindfulness, resilience and the acknowledgment that true progress often lies in the patient, thoughtful steps taken toward a meaningful goal.

Jennifer Garbowicz is senior vice president, private client adviser at Bank of American Private Bank.

Garbowicz serves on a variety of nonprofit organization boards including the Homeless Empowerment Program, the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Presidents Council Chair role for the CFA Institute. She also serves on several for-profit boards, including chair of the board of trustees for HCA Florida St. Petersburg Hospital.

She earned a certificate in leadership and strategic impact from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She also holds the Chartered Financial Analyst designation and a Certificate in Investment Performance Management from CFA Institute and also holds Series 7 and 66 licenses.

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