Wednesday, May 11, 2016

20 Years Later: The Mount Everest Tragedy

Source: National Geographic
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy that took the lives of Rob Hall,  Scott Fisher, and other members of their expeditions. Many of you may have read Jon Krakaeur's book, Into Thin Air, which chronicled the events of May 1996 in detail.  Others may have watched the Everest movie that came out last year.  Still others have seen the tremendous documentaries produced by David Breashears about the events of May 1996.  

As most of my blog readers know, I've conducted extensive research on the decision-making processes of Everest climbers.    As part of that research, I've spent a considerable amount of time learning about the events of May 1996, including through multiple conversations with the leaders of the IMAX expedition team, Ed Viesturs and David Breashears.   Ed and David turned around, while the Hall and Fisher teams continued up the mountain.   Later Viesturs and Breashears helped rescue the survivors of the tragedy that took place when a blizzard occurred.  

What are some lasting leadership lessons from that tragedy?  

1.  Great leaders exercise restraint.   As David Breashears has told me, the best leaders don't simply order you up the mountain no matter what.   They listen to others' ideas before expressing their views.  They must be willing to gather input from a variety of people.  Unfortunately, he says, some leaders are not willing to listen to dissenting views.   The best leaders create a climate of psychological safety, where everyone is willing to speak up.   After gathering input and advice from multiple sources, the leader can make a more informed and thoughtful decision.  

2.  Great leaders don't attribute all their past success to their own qualities and choices.  Instead, they acknowledge that past success hinged upon favorable environmental conditions, a strong team to support and assist them, an effective support network back at base camp and at home, and a significant dose of good fortune.   When leaders begin believing that past success is all about their own excellence, and fail to recognize other contributing causes, they get in big trouble.  

3.  Great leaders recognize how cognitive biases can impair decision making, particularly in stressful situations.  They don't escalate commitment to failing courses of action in the presence of substantial sunk costs.   In other words, climbers don't simply keep climbing because they have put so much into the expedition (money, effort, time, and other resources that they cannot get back).   You can't look back; you must look ahead.  Don't keep moving forward simply because  you don't want to waste the investment you have already made.  Don't throw good money, or good effort, after bad!  Other biases include confirmation bias (looking for data that confirms what you already believe) and compensatory behavior (taking more risk because you know a safety mechanism or system redundancy is in place; in Everest's case, carrying supplemental oxygen can create a false sense of security according to Ed Viesturs).  

4.  Great leaders don't build rigid plans.  As Dwight Eisenhower once said, "Planning is everything.  Plans are useless."   In other words, be incredibly prepared.  Be ready for all scenarios.  Prepare meticulously.  However, once the execution of your plan begins, be ready to adjust and adapt to conditions on the ground.  Don't build a rigid plan in a turbulent environment.  Retain flexibility.  Don't just try to work harder to "get back on plan" when things start unfolding in ways you did not predict.  In fact, great planning is not about predicting the future.  It's about preparing for multiple scenarios that might unfold in the future.  

5.  Great leaders build a team around a shared vision, not simply a common goal.  What do I mean by that?  The Hall and Fisher expedition team members certainly all had a common goal: to reach the summit (we might argue that the more appropriate goal is to return safely to base camp).  The problem, though, is that each person was focused on their own personal attainment of that goal.  They didn't strive necessarily to achieve the summit as a team.  Contrast that with the shared vision of the IMAX team there in May 1996.  They strove to put a fifty pound camera on top of the mountain.  They wanted to create a great documentary.  It was not about individual accomplishment; it was truly a shared vision to create something extraordinary.   

For more of my work on the 1996 Everest tragedy, see the HBS case study that I wrote, as well as the California Management Review article that I published.  In recent years, I also co-created (with Amy Edmondson) the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation, available from Harvard Business Publishing.  

No comments: