Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Needs of the Group in the Death Zone

An essay for a grad school leadership class...

On May 10, 1996, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer led their commercial expeditions to the peak of Mount Everest. The two leaders, four guides, three Sherpas, and eight clients were trapped in a blizzard during their descent. Five died, including Hall and Fischer, and another client was maimed (Krakauer, 1996). There are many leadership lessons to draw from the disaster, but let’s examine the notion that “Leaders should be led by the group’s needs.”

Who comprised the group and what were its needs? The clients were there to add climbing Everest to their list of achievements. Two journalists were there for commercial and professional reasons, and to summit. The guides were there to summit as well as collect a fee for seeing to the clients. In addition to their commercial interests the owners were also committed to summiting. The Sherpas were there to work (Roberto & Carioggia, 2003). Summiting aside, I imagine the group would have agreed they needed to come home with all their fingers, toes, and noses. In the end the only thing everyone agreed on was that they needed not to die.

Taking relatively inexperienced climbers into the “death zone” called for more preparation, equipment, and leadership than was provided. The group needed to be a team but was not (Krakauer, 1996). More oxygen bottles were needed for the descent, and might have helped avert the disaster, or at least reduced the death toll. The group needed more radios, which could have shortened the wait to affix ropes near the summit, reducing what became a deadly delay. Hall and Fischer chose to serve as “sweeps,” following their clients, instead of being where they were needed. They could not lead, solve problems, or enforce a turn-around time from the tail end of their group (Roberto & Carioggia, 2003).

Hall and Fischer emphasized the effect the extreme altitude could have on a client’s judgment but failed to plan for the effect it would have on theirs. Both made much of the “‘Two O’clock Rule’ – If you aren’t on top by two, it’s time to turn around,” but once the ascent began both failed to set a turn-around time, let alone enforce one. Hall, a guide, and five clients arrived at the summit at 2:30 pm – 30 minutes late. They remained there 40 minutes before beginning their descent. Fischer reached the peak at 3:45 pm – an hour and 45 minutes late. Hanson arrived at 4:15 pm – two hours and 15 minutes after his leader, guides, or Sherpas should have turned him around. The delays on ascent, loitering at the summit, and delays looking for oxygen bottles during the descent put much of the group in the teeth of the storm when the weather changed (Roberto & Carioggia, 2003).

Hall and Fischer let commercial interests and personal concerns interfere with their professional judgment. Prior success led them to underestimate the risk. “It’s worked 39 time times so far, pal…” Hall told Krakauer. Hall felt bad client Doug Hanson hadn’t succeeded the previous year and lobbied him to return for a fourth attempt. When Hanson said he couldn’t make it to the summit Hall encouraged him to carry on. When guide Andy Harris was injured during the climb Hall let him continue. When both men collapsed on the mountain Hall refused to leave them (Roberto & Carioggia, 2003). Some fault Hall for not abandoning Hanson and Harris, for putting his personal feelings before the needs of the rest of the group (Krakauer, 1996). I’ve never left anyone to certain death so I won’t judge him, but if Hall had descended he might have helped rescue Yosuko Namba or save Beck Weathers from his gruesome injuries.

Scott Fischer was hampered by a variety of impediments. He craved recognition and respect. Rejecting the idea of failure, he bragged “We’ve got the big E figured out; we’ve got it totally wired.” Fischer’s physical condition declined throughout the expedition while he burdened himself with work he should have delegated. When he had logistical troubles and an ill Sherpa in need of evacuation he handled both issues himself. Pete Schoening had trouble during an acclimatization climb so Fischer helped him down personally and later took him up for another try. Fischer escorted Dale Kruse down to Base Camp instead of assigning the task to a guide or Sherpa. If Fischer had prohibited Lopsang Jangbu from dragging Sandy Pittman up the mountain on a “short rope” Jangbu would have been available to affix the summit ropes for everyone’s benefit (Roberto & Carioggia, 2003). The group needed a solid plan, a commitment to safety over ego gratification, and effective leadership. They didn’t get it.

Can similar lessons be applied in more conventional business environments? Let me offer an example. In the mid-1990s we struggled through several cases of potential workplace violence and found our ad hoc efforts inconsistent, stressful, and risky. My team was tasked to develop a workplace violence response plan. We did our research, consulted with the best minds in the field, developed a plan, wrote policy, and trained a team. In time we were called in on a deeply troubling case involving a mentally ill employee with a recently discovered history of extreme violence and who was suspected of carrying firearms at work. The team prepared to make a workplace intervention according to our new policy, using our state of the art processes, procedures, hardware, and staff. The evening of the intervention our senior VP refused to let the team proceed before he received a detailed briefing. As the clock ticked away minutes, then hours, we reviewed every detail of our plan, answered his questions, and strove to resolve his concerns. The subject of our intervention was due to leave work shortly and the on-site evaluation was likely to take a couple hours. From our perspective we were running down the clock and risked dulling the sharp edge of readiness the team needed. From his point of view he was making certain we were fully prepared for a potentially deadly task. Finally we told our executive it was time to act or postpone the intervention. We were released to take action. We had a plan agreed upon in advance. We had a resilient team that had trained together. We had a centralized but flexible command and control structure. We had good luck. Everyone survived.

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