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Book Review: The Mountain Within by Herta von Stiegel

I will admit I was skeptical about this book, even after the author told me people often were inspired to tears by it. Somehow, an inspirational book comparing a climb up Kilimanjaro to the race up the corporate ladder seemed unlikely to me.

But, about page 20, I was a little misty myself, and by the time Herta and her motley assembly did, finally, make it to the Uhuru Peak, I was ready to stand up and cheer.

Let me explain my reaction a bit, as well as offer caveats.  First, the book is well written.  Business books, a genre that usually apes the style of video equipment instructions, are seldom so literate.  Second, you get to know Herta pretty well in the first chapter and she, as a character, is compelling. Growing up as a persecuted minority in Communist Romania, she helped her family in the vineyards and got up extra early to do her homework.

Back then, it had been up to me to help my family join my sister as émigrés to the United States.  Terrified of the secret police–who could make anyone disappear with a flick of a finger–I experienced firstand what truly high stakes felt like.  Standing in line facing questions from such fearsome authorities prepared me well for the work I would later do at companies like Citibank, JPMorgan, and AIG.  Staring into the faces of business leaders who had that same cool arrogance, I could always tell myself that they didn’t have the power that those secret police did, a power that meant that one wrong word when they were questioning me could mean a jail sentence or certain death.  Once I had faced them, I found that there was little in the corporate world that could frighten me. 

She also won my respect early with an unabashed expression of values one doesn’t normally associate with high financiers.

This book is about leadership, because we need a new brand of business and political leaders who know who they are.  We need leaders who can relate spiritiually and humanely to their fellow human beings, who can overcome challenges and exhibit innovation, creativity, and the courage to tackle obstacles as they arise. . . . They must be leaders who know not to stay too long at the top, because the rarefied atmosphere in the upper echelons causes us to lose perspective, to become intoxicated with power, status, and weatlh and to lose touch with what matters.  This book is a call to create a better, more sustainable framework based on integrity, transparency, good governance, the value of each human being, and the power of teamwork. 

These words may seem a bit idealistic as applied to people who can just as easily be compared to the secret police.  But I appreciated that Herta knew this perspective is important.

Where I really choked up was where she talked about the importance of doing work you care about–and the blessing it is to have a calling.

People will discourage you.  They may tell you that your vision of how you see your success is unrealistic, culturally wrong, unsophisticated, or impractical. But if you have a vision in your heart (if you feel it), you know it.  Choose to do more than just build a career, imprtant as that may be.  Discover your calling, your passion, and pursue your vision, not just for money or fame but to make a difference in the world.

I do think of my work as “a calling,” and her remarks about how people with a calling will go to any lengths to pursue it resonated with me.  Such people impose on families and friends with rushed agendas, long hours, and short tempers, yet expect them to share the sense of a mission. It is a characteristic that can be admirable or merely arrogant.

I admit I have a little trouble seeing the investment bankers and luxury handbag manufacturers in Herta’s book as people with a calling. But that just goes to show you.  I am sure there are people laughing right now at the notion that I have a calling. Meanwhile, I am driving myself into the ground–my sweet husband just keeps saying he is behind me–and who knows whether this “calling” is merely a vain illusion of mine?

The vignettes of the very wealthy and successful do, I think, ultimately detract from the book, however.  The core story of Herta and her husband Hans’ quest to climb Kilimanjaro is sympathetic enough.  And it becomes a truly compelling narrative when she decides to take a group of disabled people up the mountain to win attention for a charity that supports them.  And right up to the end, you can’t decide whether she is crazy or brave for doing it–and neither can she!  Her honesty about her doubts, her failures, her mistakes, is commendable.

The leadership lessons she builds in are also pretty good.  They grow more or less naturally out of the mountain climbing story and are much more creative and instructive than most of those awful leadership tomes out there.  But the translations of the lessons to a corporate setting ring a bit hollow just because the comparison to climbing Kilimanjaro with a group of seriously disabled people is so out of proportion.

I did, in the end, feel moved by the book.  And I do think it would make good reading for a business school or executive education class.  I felt I came to know Herta–and came to admire her–through reading the book.

Here is a trailer for The Mountain Within.  There is also a documentary.


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