False Summits and the Six-Month Wall

For any of you who have climbed even a modest peak that has included a false summit, I am sure you will agree that they test your resolve.

Just when you think you are reaching the end of your gruelling hike, you ‘summit’ and then your stomach drops as you realise that there is further yet to go, often up steeper slopes with tougher terrain.

If you are leading a team it can provide an interesting conundrum. Do you stoically stride upwards not even pausing to suggest that this could ever have been perceived as the end of the climb? Or should you confess that there is a part of you who also wants to stick your flag in the ground here, empathise with your team’s disappointment, then gently corral them to continue?

The answer might depend on how well you know the mountain.

“Come on guys, it’s not much further, you’ll see the real summit just round that corner”- would be entirely appropriate if you knew it to be the case.

But what if you don’t know how much further there is to go? What if you are not even halfway up and simply don’t know that yet?

I think many business leaders are faced with a version of this challenge today.

The fear, adrenalin, and speed that drove the shift into lockdown earlier this year brought with them huge momentum. Daily government briefings, radically adapted work practices, and a marketplace in flux made for almost addictive viewing and necessitated immediate reaction. Personal fear for the health of loved ones, perceived scarcity of basis essentials in our supermarkets, and surreally quiet streets had an unwelcome novelty, but novelty none the less.

We didn’t like it, but motivation was not hard to come by.

Then we started to adapt. Working from home became normal, wearing a mask became normal, the R number started to fall, the stock market started to recover, restrictions started to relax. We were encouraged to ‘eat out to help out’, pubs were open and there were even traffic jams at rush hour.

We, like many businesses, were starting to plan how to safely move back into our offices. We were starting to talk of lessons learned through the pandemic, what would we hold on to, what needed to change as we planned for a post-covid world.

We were getting close to the end of this challenging climb; our resolve had been tested and we had overcome….

Then the weather changed.

It was a false summit.

We are locking down again, office opening plans have been put on ice, significant social restrictions are back, talk of preparing for ‘a digital Christmas’ is amongst the necessary, but depressing, government rhetoric, and added to the mix we have very real possibility of a no deal Brexit coming in to sharp focus.

In marathon running people talk of hitting ‘the wall’. For many, recent weeks have doubtlessly felt similar.

So how should we, as leaders respond?

In a fascinating article in Forbes magazine by Nancy Doyle, Professor Aisha Ahmad, author and academic, talks about hitting the ‘six-month wall’ in a crisis situation.

She describes it as “real and normal” to experience this six-month hump, and advises that accepting the situation as a natural reaction to the global trauma we are all experiencing will help us through until the feelings of low energy and despondency lift in a few weeks.

Professor Ahmad suggests that rather than viewing this as a step backwards, it is important to recognise that we are entering our next major adaptation phase in the crisis. This requires us to reassess what we have already learned in our six-month journey through the pandemic, and to innovate in order to survive the next phase of shorter days, colder weather, and renewed lockdowns.

In the meantime, as we work through this challenging time, we should prioritise kindness to ourselves and to others, and recognise what we have already achieved – adapting to a whole new way of life through six months of a traumatic global pandemic.

Doyle likens this response to a crisis situation to the experience of those who live with serious illness or disability. Our strength as human beings is in our ability to adapt to new and challenging situations, developing new ways in which not only to survive, but to thrive.

As leaders, we should take the time to acknowledge this as a challenging time for our colleagues, supporting them to be kind and patient with themselves and others as we transition to the next phase of the global crisis.


Jamie Livingston is Chairman and CEO of the Livingston James Group

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