Thinking the Unthinkable logo Thinking the Unthinkable logo

Hiking the Summit of Minds

by Nik Gowing

File under The BookFile under Leadership Style

How wonderful to be at a top level gathering — officially a conference — which breaks the mould. Influential business people and thinkers coming together on the mountain peaks below Mont Blanc and above Chamonix in France.

Leaders walking on mountain side with peaks and clouds in background

The air, the informality, the mountain activities, the stunning locations in extraordinary autumnal weather all combine to stimulate and enrich thinking.

Yes they really do.

And this young concept for engaging and emboldening leaders gets better each year. The atmosphere and atmospherics make such a big difference. They matter so much.

This 46 hours is not an abuse of executive power, or squandering of corporate and public purse resources to enjoy a lush lifestyle up a mountain for a weekend.

Shareholders and stakeholders should be reassured. It was hard, intense work.

This is how big new ideas emerge in this time of acute disruption to all assumptions about how business and politics will be done in what too many had to label this ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’ world.

The brilliantly conceived ‘Summit of the Minds’ (SOM) is really just that.

The gathering is not about pessimism or optimism. In this new normal of disruption that all leaders confront, it is about exploring the realism needed to stretch perceptions, often well out of the comfort zone, and sometimes to painful stress points.

Leaders want to discover how to thrive on change. SOM is how they can do that.

The new ideas come in intense conversations on the Montenvers rack railway up to the fast receding but still spectacular 11km tongue of ice — the Mer de Glace. Our four carriages buzzed with executive chatter at 8.30 in the morning.

Or those ideas come walking further up beneath the spectacular Aiguille de Midi. Or sitting on a rock listening to new experiences. Or sharing an apple or choc bar with an exec, or leader, or super rich family member who you have never met before.

Set aside any idea of long pre-anguishing by a steering committee to get the agenda finely honed, and probably risk free. No! Within a loose framework the agenda invents itself as it goes along.

From the ‘Take Off’ session in a diamond-shaped seating plan that stimulates face to face engagement at 2pm on Friday to the ‘Take Away’ gathering during Sunday morning, it is far more productive and energising for it.

The spontaneous chance for flashes of new insight and inspiration are far more important than pre-cooked speaking agendas from an oversize panel in a darkened theatre-style auditorium that characterise most other conferences.

If the setting and concept are brave, then insights and ideas follow accordingly.

First principle for these leaders: share your anxieties and the conformity you are battling against. Be humble. Show empathy. Say you don’t know. You want to know more, and that comes from others who might know or have already experimented with new ways of doing things. Hear them out. Be inspired.

This is how C-suite delegates and high net worth individuals think comfortably about unthinkables and how to both confront or embrace them.

The gathering really lives up to its new brand and title: ‘Summit of Minds’. There is no box to think out of. These corporate and financial leaders are already well past that and on their way to defining a new box for thinking differently in the kind of non-conformist ways needed.

Different? You bet! Dramatically different! Conferences usually have a dull and predictable formula.

Welcoming remarks. Keynote speech by a well-known name, often regardless of whether he or she speaks well. Dark suits or the female equivalent. Over stacked panels with too many high-class names and not enough time to hear from them. Coffee. Lunch. More of the same.

At the 2018 ‘Summit of Minds’ our minds stretched and climbed even higher. They were also opened to the frightening new reality of climate change.

The receding glacier
As we walked and talked with no deference to status or hierarchy we gazed down on the glacier, Europe’s third longest. It is receding and melting at a frightening pace. This summer’s intense heat has made things worse and intensified the pace of its eventual disappearance.

In Chamonix itself, mountain life is being disrupted too.

The peaks and rock faces that guides have long known so well for so long are changing frighteningly fast. Permafrost is melting, removing the glue that holds rocks together.

Too many who venture into the more dangerous mountain locations — even renowned experts — are being injured or killed by the unexpected.

Seven days after SOM, Sir Richard Branson, his son Sam and a group of high altitude trekkers escaped ‘certain death’ by seconds during a late summer rockfall on Mont Blanc.

“God forbid. Three seconds earlier and we would all certainly have been killed,” said Branson.

The new graves in the churchyard confirm this new Alpine reality and cost of taking risks. One guide described it all with tears in the eyes. Another has stopped guiding, like many others.

The unthinkable is happening.

The mountains are becoming too dangerous and more uncertain than ever.

And as if sending a warning message, one large ski area has been incapacitated by a devastating fire started during summer renovations.

A cable car lies in a ravine after the main cable melted in the intense heat — yes melted! And the super-popular high speed cable car to the 4,000 metre Aiguille de Midi has been suspended because pylons and the cable were no longer correctly aligned after permafost melted.

At the ‘Summit of Minds’ we all engaged in the new impact of Artificial Intelligence, innovation, political populism (what our Thinking the Unthinkable project labels ‘pushbackism), the new uncertainties of geopolitics and a looming financial crash.

We even heard that the first human who will live indefinitely has probably already been born.

But it was the glorious mountains and summits towering above us during the three days which confirmed the enormity and speed of change everywhere. Leaders could not escape that reality. How will they handle it? There is no space for complacency or conformity.

Leave a comment