By Walter C. Wright, Jr.

In November, 1975, a backpacking trip launched an important dimension of my leadership journey. We entered the mountains in the Fall; we came out in Winter. We were not prepared for the change! Out of that disastrous trip five of us signed up for the Sierra Club’s Basic Mountaineering Training Course. Fresh from the training, with a shared love of wilderness, seven men formed a life-long group to climb mountains and explore backcountry together. We went out every month for a three-day weekend, missing only five months in the first six years. Obviously we formed a closely bonded group, a peer mentoring community, roped as much to navigate the trail of life as to ascend the mountain peaks that beckoned us. We have been climbing and hiking together now for 38 years, several of us meeting weekly for lunch. These are my friends and mentors, men who have held my life in their hands, belaying each other’s climbs as we encourage each other’s lives.

Rope team: bound together on the mountain trails and in life

Rope team: bound together on the mountain trails and in life

As we learned how to work efficiently and effectively as a rope team to attain a summit or weather a storm, we saw lessons for life — metaphors for the worlds in which we worked. Sitting around the camp stove, or driving home from a trip, we would ponder what we had learned from success and failure and how it might apply to our lives.

Don't step on the rope! Brent Stenberg tied to Walter Wright (who took this photo) on Washington State's Mount Baker

Don’t step on the rope! Brent Stenberg tied to Walter Wright (who took this photo) on Mount Baker in Washington State

For me the rope was a powerful metaphor for the leadership relationship: leaders and followers are tied together. The rope deserves attention. I began to imagine a book on team leadership principles that flowed naturally from our experience on rock faces and mountain glaciers. With the encouragement of my publisher, I enlisted the support of the group and together we reflected on our decades of climbing and what we had learned about leadership, relationships and teams. I was the author, but the emerging manuscript was a team project.

don't step on the rope! 2
This is my fun book. It brings together two parallel trajectories in my life: leadership and mountain-climbing. Don’t Step on the Rope! uses mountaineering stories to illustrate basic principles about leading teams. I find the metaphor rich with application to life and work. The book and the metaphor were embraced by Vistage, an international membership association of CEOs, allowing me to present workshops on Team Values to CEO groups and management teams across North America.

As the book is read and discussed, two observations keep surfacing. Very few men have safe supportive groups like our rope team; most wish they did. And the metaphor of the rope makes explicit the critical yet mostly invisible relationships that connect us in teams, communities and organizations. Teams are clipped into a common rope. Everyone leads and everyone follows. Leadership happens when everyone on the rope chooses to follow. Leadership is relational; the rope makes that physically concrete. Don’t step on the rope! — those relationships can save your life, or take you to the summit.

Cirque at 70: Walter Wright's septuagenarian celebration

Cirque at 70: Walter Wright’s septuagenarian celebration

Editor’s note: If you are interested in purchasing your own copy of Walt’s Don’t Step on the Rope!, please

contact the Max De Pree Center for Leadership


Walter Wright navigated a leadership journey as administrator at Fuller Seminary, as president of Regent College in Vancouver, and as executive director of the De Pree Center. Today Walt is a senior Fellow of the De Pree Center. For more on Walt, see his De Pree Center bio.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of introductions to the books of Walter Wright, by Walt himself. See also Mentoring and Relational Leadership.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email The Editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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