Mountain Interview: Leo Birnbaum & Thomas Bubendorfer


I’m Leo Birnbaum. I’m a board
member of E.ON SE. I spent a beautiful day today here in
the Dolomites climbing together with Thomas Bubendorfer.
He’s a well-known climber and he has thought a lot about climbing and
business and management. He’s also a well-known corporate speaker so let’s
chat a little bit what climbing and business have in common. Thomas maybe one question – Where are we and why are we here? Well we are in the Dolomites. We are
close to Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. Obviously and we are at the foot of the
Cinque Torri, Rock formation, mountain, because it’s
it’s really stunning here, I mean I’m from Austria and we have beautiful
mountains which we are proud of, but the Dolomites are unique. I mean they are
just mind-blowing.I’m privileged to be here. I’m half Italian so I can
actually obviously sympathiye a little bit with Italy here and I have to say
the Dolomites for me are impossible to beat. They’re just so beautiful. I agree. Maybe before we get into those difficult topics. . . Why climbing actually? I
believe, no I don’t believe, I’m sure it’s the the most wonderful sport (in
parentheses), it’s not a sport because it’s complete. You need everything from your fingertips to your toes, both hands, both feet. It’s not one-sided. It’s a mental
game. It’s a physical game. It has a lot of contemplative elements in it. You know,
the approach and Thinking about it And this. You know the
the scenery and where we exercise it where we practice it. I mean
nothing beats it. You don’t need to convince me anyway. So on this day to
those who actually would have been here with us, the question would have been
useless here and unnecessary, but then maybe let’s talk a little bit about risk.
Because in the end risk is part of our life. Risk is part of business. Risk
certainly is part of climbing. What is an acceptable risk and
which risks do you need to take which one have you taken in climbing? Well the
new . . if you do something new for you there is always a certain risk
factor in it because you don’t know if you can. But on the other hand, so that’s
exciting it sharpens your senses it makes you as good as you can be. The
element of the new and the other on the other hand if you don’t do something new
it’s boring so how good can you be? Or will you be if you are bored? I mean it’s
that simple that question. If you’re a mountain climber, I think the
biggest risk you can take is to do simple climbs, because
they put you to sleep. But gravity doesn’t. and and risk always sits
somewhere around the corner, even on an easy mountain so my advice is, for myself
and for everybody else, who asks me, don’t choose easy mountains because they are
the really dangerous ones. It is necessary to take risks and the
question is do you take them in a conscious and safe way? I mean
are you doing foolish things or are you doing thoughtful stuff which is new? where you’re testing your limits. But the
question is: have you thought about what if my assumptions are wrong?
What do I do? What is my plan B? What is my fallback? How can I get out of that
wall if it turns out to be impossible? Do I have a way back? I think that’s the
same in business we need to take risks but we need to take them in a very
conscious, very thoughtful way. In a way which is not foolish but meaningful. And
then I think you’re right, it sharpens your senses. It creates a sense of
urgency, which then allows you to do stuff that
you wouldn’t do otherwise. Today we certainly did a tour which is
potentially extremely risky, but it was safe, I think, all the way. Yeah. We were
focused with the right equipment. We were prepared mentally and
physically. And it wasn’t that simple, so we thought oh it’s going to be a walk in
the park. No it was not. And you don’t want to walk in the park,
in anything, so let me just give it a different spin. You’re giving
many speeches to corporates. What is the lesson you think climbing can teach
business life? What’s the most important thing to you. What
is the thing that you choose to tell? Well, there’s many parallels, of
course, but the most impressive for me in my whole climbing career, of almost 40 years, and I have gained insights into your world, into the business world for 30 years, that I’ve been communicating with business people and leaders and exchanging thoughts. I had two big accidents: one 30 years ago and in the other one last year. How did I behave prior to those accidents, in other words, what was the
reason for these accidents? It was two reasons One: they always happen in a
period of great success. Climbing success, business success, and then
success is a very bad teacher because you think you got it made. You know how
it works. But you never know how it works, no matter how professional you are
or how good you are at what you do. You can be a world champion.
You never know everything, but success is like this venom. You know it it you want
more of it You become greedy and you let
your guard down. You think you got it made. And that’s when the shit hits the fan. That’s one, and two: you make mistakes when you’re
tired. When you don’t take calculated intelligent risks, but when you when
you’re overworked. When you’re over trained. When you’re over climbed, it
doesn’t matter. If you’re not rested. So, success and fatigue. And of
course, if you’re tired mentally. I was when I had my accident last year. I was
tired mentally, not physically. Because I was fit but my mind wasn’t there. And
that’s when I made a stupid mistake. Of course, with gravity, and not sleeping, a
mistake for a climber is is a lot more serious immediately than in a business.
And as a climber, you can’t put the blame on anybody. Because it’s you fault. You know it’s not your fault if we’re in the team and I fall, it’s my
fault, that I fell and so I I meet a lot of people in business and they are not
rested. They work too much and I think that’s a big danger when you’re a
climber and you face a really challenging climb. That’s always a sort
of artificial crisis, because you’re very excited you don’t know how it’s gonna
work out. Am I good enough? You know all these questions and they really sharpen
your senses. And they bring out your 100% And sometimes more. But if you
go, oh I’m so good anyways, It’s true. When you told me, yesterday,
what were gonna do today I was slightly nervous, because I really didn’t
know whether I would, you know, make it up in a decent way. And so, this morning, I
felt quite nervous waking up. But it was actually probably just the right tension.
In the end it worked out fine. And that’s a good thing. Yeah. One thing
one has to ask yourself, Does courage exist without fear? They’re brother and sister, in the German language, anyway
because we have the genders, but courage doesn’t exist without a little bit of
fear or anxiety, that comes before it. And who doesn’t
want to have the feeling, Oh I really overcame a certain threshold
within myself and then how good does that feel? I mean money can’t buy it. I just
comes to my mind focus is something which climbing helps you to gain because
when you’re on the wall it really doesn’t matter what your diary says. The only thing that matters is the here and now. You have the next 20 meters so to say the next stand. And you
really focus and concentrate on the the thing that is important. That’s maybe
something often in life we do unnecessary unimportant things we get
distracted and we’re not focused. We might not be rested and on top we might
be unfocused and we might be too successful. And certainly that can be a
very dangerous combination. So Leo, being an executive, usually people ask me
what they can learn from climbing. What can I learn from you about climbing? I mean from from the business world. It’s a subjective answer that I can
give to you only now but I think the key point is, for me, climbing is about
teamwork. You can do things together which you just can’t do alone. That’s
true. And I believe, I mean obviously, you can just do stuff free solo but the
likelihood that you can really push the borders, it’s just lower.
Especially in mixed climbing. Yeah you can’t do it there. Yeah. So what I
think the key about climbing is: you need to have absolute faith in your team, in
your teammates. Yeah. You cannot accept there is a mistake being made, so
if I if I look at climbing, for me it’s all what you said before. It’s it’s a
perfect sport. It’s a complete sport. It challenges you, but it’s also a really
great team effort. And in business, you’re
only successful if you can build great teams. There are no geniuses out
there which can build great companies without great teams. In the end, it’s all
about the team, and where’s the team more essential than when you’re two on a wall.
That’s true, but it’s I would think it’s much easier to find one good climbing
partner that you trust or maybe a handful. I don’t even have ten climbing
partners that I really do great stuff with. Maybe five, you know, but your teams
are always so large. Where do you find all these people? Yeah, but you find five
guys who each have to find five guys. You build great teams, not by finding 500
guys, you build great teams by finding 20 guys. That’s an interesting point. If those guys are the right ones, they will build their teams. Right.
Because the individual is not that important the team matters more than the
individual. I think the the one thing that I have observed is when
you get to an executive position, you tend to think too too much of yourself.
You think you are indispensable, nobody can replace you. The world just moves on.
If you would get sick, and you would need to stop working, I mean the company would need to continue. So, I think the team matters
and the team makes everybody replaceable. But at the same time, the team gives
everybody a reason. So this is what I learned from climbing. It’s absolute
faith and passion. Oh thanks a lot for this beautiful day. Thanks for the
discussion You want the two red t-shirts together! We can do this!

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