The terrain was dry and the gravel was slippery. The wind unforgiving, having to take one step back for each step forward. Although breathtaking, the tallest free-standing mountain in Africa can get below freezing on its most frigid nights. Spencer West’s quest to climb nearly 20,000 feet to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro was fueled by his determination to provide clean water to over 12,000 people in East Africa.
35,000 people make the trek up the mountain annually but only less than half reach the summit, often victims of altitude sickness. What was most extraordinary wasn’t that Spencer raised half a million dollars for this cause, it was that he did it without any legs.
“It was the first time I wished I had legs that day so I could have carried my friends. I focused on the things that I could do, so I stood in between my friends to motivate them until we got to the summit.” It’s what Spencer told me about his trek to the summit.
He was telling audiences they needed to make a difference, but he felt that wasn’t enough. Making the climb gave his message credibility.
“Look guys, I’ve done it. I’ve changed the world. It’s hard, it’s difficult, and it’s possible,” he declared.
Spencer West is a motivational speaker for ME to WE, a social enterprise that looks to break the cycle of poverty through education. Through international trips and leadership programs they look to empower youth to help them understand they can make an impact.
Spencer was born with legs, but he had a genetic disease that caused his muscles not to work. As a child, they removed just below his pelvis so he could become more mobile. After his surgeries, doctors told him he would never walk or become a functioning member of society. “We set out to prove them wrong. I wanted to show the world the things that I can do, and I didn’t have time to focus on the things that I couldn’t do,” he said.
He went on to get a college degree, an unsatisfying job, and accumulated material possessions that didn’t make him any happier. It was a 10-day trip to Kenya in 2008 that initially got Spencer out of his comfort zone. He enrolled in volunteer trip through ME to WE to build a school for their sister non-profit organization, Free the Children.
It was a moment that changed everything. One of the young girls in Kenya was talking to Spencer about the loss of his legs. “I didn’t know that things like this happened to white people too,” she said. For Spencer, that moment made him realize that he could use his story to empower others to look at challenges differently and to hopefully inspire them to get involved with causes they care about.
One of the most important lessons Spencer has learned is that asking for help is a sign of courage. During one of his trips to India he built a school with a group of students and they decided to climb Mount Abu to celebrate. They were near the top when they encountered one thousand cement stairs. Suddenly, two local men appeared with two large, wooden poles and a platform hanging between them. “Does anyone need a ride to the top?” They asked.
“My gut reaction was absolutely not,” Spencer asserted. He knew he’d have to accept help if he was going to lead these students to the top, so he grudgingly accepted the ride. At the peak hangs a brass bell where you make a wish and ring it three times. Spencer, who stands 2’7,” admired the students as they rang the bell, which stood much higher than he.
“Spencer what are you doing? You’ve never let anything stop you before, so what’s stopping you now? Why not just ask for help?” Said the voice in his head. He turned to his co-facilitator, Andrea, and asked if she would help lift him so he could ring the bell. Spencer then made a wish and rang the bell three times.
Spencer learned that leaders ask for help every day. They don’t know everything and they accomplish the most valuable achievements with the input of those around them. There’s an element of vulnerability that leaders posses, and we’ve confused that trait with a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength. Looking back, there have been times where I’ve been afraid to be vulnerable because of being self-conscious. Moving forward, I’ll continue to be inspired by Spencer’s message and remember that it’s OK to lean on others.
We’re all going to face challenges both personally and professionally. How we manage our state in tough times can often determine the outcome. Spencer’s mantra, helps us to look at challenges through a different lens.