Summit Team Building

Ryan Waters, Mountaineer | Extreme Leadership Interview

About this Interview

In this installment of the Extreme Leadership Series, Scott Kress delves into the world of extreme expeditions with Ryan Waters, a renowned mountaineer and polar guide, and the founder of Mountain Professionals. The conversation navigates through Ryan’s vast experiences in some of the most challenging environments on Earth, exploring the parallels between leadership in extreme expeditions and in corporate settings. From tales of resilience and adaptability to insights into team dynamics under duress, this discussion unpacks the essence of leadership and teamwork against the backdrop of the world’s highest peaks and most isolated terrains.

Key Themes and Takeaways

  • Leadership in Extreme Conditions: Ryan’s journey provides a firsthand look at the intricacies of leading in the high-risk conditions of mountaineering and polar expeditions. The key takeaway is the critical importance of experience, preparation, and adaptability in leadership.
  • Building High-Performance Teams: The discussion includes strategies for molding diverse groups into cohesive, high-performance teams capable of overcoming the unpredictable challenges of extreme environments. This underscores the value of trust, communication, and shared goals in team building.
  • Resilience and Adaptability: Through Ryan’s stories, he emphasizes resilience and adaptability as indispensable qualities for individuals and teams facing the constant flux of extreme expedition conditions. It illustrates how repeated exposure to challenges strengthens mental, emotional, and physical fortitude.
  • Customizing Leadership Styles: Ryan’s reflections on leadership styles reveal the necessity of tailoring one’s approach to the specific demands of the environment and the team. The takeaway is the importance of developing a leadership style that inspires confidence and fosters effective teamwork.
  • Preparation and Training: The discussion also touches on the significance of rigorous preparation and training for facing the harsh realities of mountaineering. It advocates for embracing discomfort during training as a means to enhance readiness for actual expedition challenges.

This conversation serves as a masterclass in leadership and team dynamics, offering valuable lessons for leaders and teams in any high-stakes or high-pressure environment, demonstrating that the principles of leading on the edge of the world are universally applicable.

00:00 – 09:03: Ryan Waters on Extreme Leadership, Mountaineering  and Polar Expeditions

In this segment Scott Kress and Ryan Waters explore leadership and teamwork in the demanding contexts of mountaineering and polar exploration. Ryan shares his journey from discovering rock climbing in high school, transitioning from a career as a geologist, to leading high-altitude and polar expeditions.

Covered in this segment:
  • Early Passion and Career Shift: Ryan’s initial fascination with climbing evolved into a professional guiding career, moving from geology to mountaineering. His story illustrates the profound impact of pursuing one’s passion on a career trajectory.
  • Professional Mountaineering and Achievements: Highlighting his progression to professional mountaineering, Ryan discusses completing the Seven Summits and the unique challenges and rewards of guiding expeditions in extreme environments.
  • Explorer’s Grand Slam Completion: Ryan is a modest person! Scott discusses Ryan’s accomplishment of the Explorer’s Grand Slam emphasizing the significance of this feat, achieved by climbing the highest peaks on each continent and skiing to both poles without support or assistance, reflecting Ryan’s leadership and endurance.
  • Insights from Polar Expeditions: Ryan offers insights into the logistics, planning, and execution of polar expeditions, underlining the essential qualities of resilience and team dynamics in overcoming the harsh conditions of Antarctica and the North Pole.
  • Mountain Professionals: The segment wraps up with an overview of Mountain Professionals, the guiding company through which Ryan leads expeditions, highlighting its role in fostering leadership and teamwork skills among clients across the globe’s most challenging terrains.

09:03 – 12:49 | Leadership Traits in Extreme Environments vs. Corporate Settings

In this segment, Scott and Ryan explore the parallels between leadership in extreme environments, such as mountaineering and polar expeditions, and corporate leadership. They discuss the essential characteristics required for effective leadership across these vastly different settings.

Covered in this segment:
  • Experience as a Foundation for Leadership: Ryan emphasizes that experience is critical for leadership in both extreme and corporate environments. Accumulated experience provides a leader with a wealth of knowledge and a track record that builds trust within a team, allowing for informed and educated decision-making that prioritizes the group’s safety and success.
  • Problem-Solving and Calmness under Pressure: Drawing from his extensive experience, Ryan notes that facing numerous challenges over time equips a leader with the ability to approach problems more rationally and calmly, rather than reacting with frustration or anger. This evolution in problem-solving approach and emotional response is crucial for managing crises effectively, both in extreme expeditions and in high-pressure corporate scenarios.
  • Parallel with Medical Field Leadership: Ryan draws a comparison to his brother’s experience in the medical field, highlighting a similar leadership philosophy. Both scenarios require viewing challenges as problems that need solving, fostering a rational, composed approach to decision-making and action, indicative of mature and effective leadership.
  • Importance of Mental and Emotional Training: Concluding the segment, Scott points out the growing recognition of mental and emotional training’s importance alongside physical fitness for climbers. This holistic approach to preparation enhances a leader’s ability to interact more effectively with their environment and team when facing challenges, underscoring the multifaceted nature of leadership development.

12:49 – 18:15: Building Trust and Confidence Within Teams

In this segment, Scott and Ryan  discuss the crucial role of trust and confidence in leadership, particularly in extreme environments like mountaineering expeditions. They explore specific behaviors, actions, and characteristics that leaders can adopt to foster a strong sense of trust and teamwork among their members.

Covered in this segment:
  • Preparation and Organization: Ryan emphasizes the importance of thorough preparation and organization as fundamental to building trust. By demonstrating that every aspect of the expedition has been carefully planned and prepared for, leaders can instill confidence in their team members, making them more willing to follow and contribute positively to the group’s dynamics.
  • Positive Expedition Experience: Reflecting on a recent expedition to the South Pole, they both noted that the satisfaction of the team members was not solely due to achieving their goal but also how it was achieved—through effective teamwork and a supportive culture. This underscores the impact of leadership on creating a fulfilling and cohesive team experience.
  • Professionalism and Tone Setting: The concept of professionalism is highlighted as a key philosophy. Setting the right tone from the beginning and maintaining a professional approach throughout the expedition encourages a productive and positive environment, further instilling confidence within the team.
  • Avoiding Confidence Erosion: Conversely, Ryan points out that a lack of organization and smooth operation can lead to eroded confidence among team members. When individuals perceive weaknesses in leadership, it can lead to increased assertiveness among strong-willed personalities, potentially disrupting team harmony.
  • Importance of Soft Skills: Ryan concludes by stressing the value of soft skills gained from his background in outdoor education. These skills are vital for dealing with diverse personality types, managing interpersonal dynamics, and providing emotional support. Effective leaders must be versatile, capable of playing multiple roles to address the varied needs of their team members throughout the expedition.

This discussion provides insights into the nuanced aspects of leadership that go beyond mere technical expertise, highlighting the need for emotional intelligence, effective communication, and a solid foundation of trust and professionalism to lead successfully in challenging environments.

18:15 – 25:17: Defining High-Performance Teams in Expeditions

In this discussion, Scott  and Ryan  explore how to mold strangers into a cohesive, high-performance team on expeditions. They delve into the significance of energy, delegation, and empowerment in leadership, highlighting how these elements contribute to team dynamics and success.

Covered in this segment:
  • Influence of Leader’s Energy: The discussion opens with an observation on the impact of a leader’s energy on the team. A calm and stable demeanor from the leader fosters a smoother team environment, whereas fluctuating emotions can lead to unrest within the group.
  • Characteristics of High-Performance Teams: Ryan defines a high-performance team as one where members actively support each other without always looking to the leader for guidance. This self-sufficiency and mutual assistance signify the team’s ability to operate effectively, even in the leader’s indirect presence.
  • Delegation and Empowerment: A pivotal aspect of Ryan’s leadership style is his focus on delegating responsibilities and empowering both staff and team members. This approach not only alleviates the burden on the leader but also promotes accountability and ownership among team members, further solidifying the team’s capability.
  • Illustrative Story of Teamwork on Everest: Ryan shares a compelling story of guiding a blind climber to the summit of Mount Everest in spring 2023. This expedition exemplifies teamwork, where staff and other climbers rallied around the blind climber, contributing to his success. This collective effort, including clients volunteering to guide and assist, underscores the essence of a high-performance team where collaboration and shared goals lead to extraordinary achievements.

This segment highlights the importance of leadership in building trust, fostering a supportive culture, and empowering team members to achieve their collective and individual goals, using the challenging context of mountaineering to illustrate broader principles of effective teamwork and leadership.

25:17 – 29:27: Navigating Change in Expeditions

Scott Kress and Ryan Waters drill into the concept of change within the context of expeditions, discussing how leaders and teams adapt to and manage change, a constant and inevitable element in the unpredictable environments of high-altitude climbing.

Covered in this segment:
  • Adapting to Change in the Expedition World: Ryan touches on the broader picture of change in expeditions, including the increasing diversity of participants and the evolving expectations around logistics and safety protocols. This necessitates forward-thinking and anticipation of future trends by expedition leaders to ensure preparedness and adaptability.
  • Example of Rapid Change Management: A vivid example is provided from a 2007 expedition on Gasherbrum II, an 8,000-meter peak in Pakistan, where Ryan and his team had to abruptly shift from summiting efforts to a rescue operation following an avalanche. This scenario underscores the need for immediate response and flexibility in leadership and team dynamics under crisis conditions.
  • Teamwork in Crisis: Highlighting the collaborative efforts during the rescue, Ryan illustrates how each team member, regardless of their role, contributed uniquely, from technical rescue operations conducted by guides to support tasks performed by clients. This collective response demonstrates effective teamwork and the capacity to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances.
  • Reflection on Leadership and Change: The story emphasizes the importance of leadership in guiding teams through sudden changes, showcasing how preparedness, resilience, and the ability to mobilize a diverse group towards a common goal are crucial in managing emergencies and unexpected situations.

This discussion about navigating change reflects broader lessons on leadership, teamwork, and adaptability, valuable not only in the high-stakes environment of mountaineering but in various aspects of life and work where change is the only constant.

29:27 – 32:19: Cultivating Resilience in Extreme Expeditions

This segment addresses the critical concept of resilience in the context of extreme expeditions, with Scott seeking insights from Ryan on fostering resilience among team members in the face of constant challenges and setbacks.

Covered in this segment:
  • Experience as the Foundation for Resilience: Ryan emphasizes the importance of experience in developing resilience. He advocates for exposure to challenging environments as a means to prepare individuals for the harsh realities of expeditions. Engaging in activities like acclimatization treks or practicing skills in adverse weather conditions serves as a reality check, reinforcing the need for readiness against the unpredictable elements of high-altitude climbing.
  • Proactive Preparation and Skill Development: Highlighting the shift in societal expectations for quick achievements, Ryan points out the essential nature of gradual preparation for expeditions. He stresses the importance of undertaking progressively more challenging climbs to build the necessary skills and mental fortitude. This approach contrasts with the contemporary trend of seeking immediate gratification and underlines the value of patience and dedication in achieving long-term goals.
  • Adapting to Modern Expectations: Ryan acknowledges the challenge of aligning modern climbers’ expectations with the realities of mountaineering. He advocates for a balanced approach that respects the traditional pathway of gaining experience through time and effort, while also recognizing the changing dynamics of how people engage with and commit to such endeavors.
  • Resilience Through Preparation: The discussion concludes with the notion that resilience is not just an innate quality but can be developed through deliberate preparation and exposure to challenging situations. This preparation equips climbers with the psychological and physical resilience needed to face the demands of extreme expeditions effectively.

This conversation sheds light on the crucial role of experience and preparation in building resilience, offering valuable insights for leaders and participants in extreme environments and beyond.

32:19 – Wrap Up: Key Insights on Leadership and Building High-Performance Teams

In the concluding segment of the discussion, Scott and Ryan touch upon the essence of repeated exposure to challenging conditions as a foundational element for building resilience. They emphasize the importance of training under adverse conditions to enhance mental, emotional, and physical preparedness for extreme environments whether it be in the boardroom or climbing Everest.

Covered in this segment:
  • Experience and Self-Confidence: Ryan underscores the value of experience and self-confidence in developing an effective leadership style tailored to the specific environment. He suggests that leaders should cultivate a style that resonates with their team and context, whether in extreme expeditions or business settings.
  • Adaptability of Leadership Style: Highlighting the need for adaptability, Ryan points out that the appropriateness of a leadership approach (e.g., authoritative vs. nurturing) varies significantly depending on the context, such as the difference between a military and medical setting.
  • Gaining Respect and Trust: The key to successful leadership lies in earning the respect and trust of team members so that they are inclined to follow the leader’s guidance without constant justification or doubt. This trust is cultivated through demonstrated competence, confidence in decision-making, and an understanding of the team’s dynamics.
  • Vision for Leadership: Scott concludes with the notion that leaders should have a clear vision of what constitutes effective leadership in their specific environment and strive towards embodying those qualities to build high-performance teams.

This conversation offers valuable lessons on leadership, emphasizing the importance of experience, adaptability, and a clear vision in developing resilience and building high-performance teams across various settings.

RELATED: Robert Swan, Explorer on passion and the keys to high performance teams.


This discussion with mountaineer and polar expedition guide Ryan Waters on Extreme Leadership takes us on a journey to the most remote corners of the planet, offering profound insights into the essence of leadership and the dynamics of high-performance teams in extreme conditions. Through the lens of Ryan’s extensive experience in mountain and polar expeditions, we gain an invaluable perspective on what it takes to lead, adapt, and thrive in environments that push the limits of human endurance and teamwork.

Ryan’s stories not only captivate but also illuminate the parallel challenges and triumphs encountered in both the wilderness of the natural world and the corporate arena. The principles of resilience, adaptability, and strategic team building discussed are as applicable to navigating the complexities of business and everyday life as they are to scaling the world’s highest peaks or traversing icy polar expanses.

Listeners are left with a deeper understanding of the power of leadership to inspire confidence, foster collaboration, and achieve extraordinary outcomes, regardless of the terrain. Whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, a seasoned executive, or an adventure enthusiast, Ryan’s reflections offer invaluable lessons on pushing boundaries, overcoming obstacles, and leading with purpose and passion.

As we conclude this interview, we’re reminded that the greatest adventures lie not only in the physical journeys we undertake but in the challenges we overcome and the teams we build along the way. Thank you, Ryan Waters, for sharing your remarkable experiences and insights, inspiring us to lead with courage, resilience, and a spirit of adventure, wherever our paths may lead.

About The Extreme Leadership Series

The Extreme Leadership Series is a dynamic exploration of leadership through the lens of extraordinary situations. Hosted by Scott Kress, it features a mix of engaging podcasts and insightful written interviews with leaders who have thrived in some of the world’s most demanding environments. From the icy wilderness of polar regions to the towering summits of the highest mountains, guests share their stories of resilience, teamwork, and courage.

This series goes beyond mere adventure tales; it delves into the core principles of effective leadership such as preparation, adaptability, and the ability to cultivate high-performance teams. It offers valuable lessons for leaders in any field, aiming to educate, inspire, and equip listeners and readers with the tools to lead under pressure.

Whether you’re an emerging leader seeking motivation, an experienced executive aiming to enhance your skills, or simply intrigued by the intersection of leadership and extreme challenges, the Extreme Leadership Series provides a unique perspective on navigating adversity and achieving success. Join Scott Kress on this journey to uncover what it takes to lead in the most unforgiving circumstances, where every decision can make a difference.

Interested in Creating Your Own Extreme Leadership Team?

Scott offers a series of Keynote presentations and workshops on team building. Here’s a quick video of Scott in action! Contact us to explore this further.

Scott Kress

Scott Kress is an accomplished climber and adventurer. He’s completed the 7 summits and skied to both the North and South Pole. His storytelling based on his adventures is captivating, but what sets Scott apart is his ability to weave his stories together with his 20+ years of leadership and team development education and experience. Scott is the president of Summit Team Building, and is passionate about helping teams grow and companies flourish.

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