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Pieter Nel

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Crisis management lessons learned from mountain rescue

or what to do when the going gets tough

Since 2007 I’ve been lucky enough to be a member of a volunteer mountain search and rescue team in South Africa. We are tasked with helping authorities with technical mountain rescues as well as search and recovery of missing people in wilderness areas. Few places can provide one with better lessons in leadership than those where lives are at stake. There are five aspects of leadership under rescue situations that I believe provides some insights into crisis management for senior executives.

  1. Have one person in charge — In a rescue situation where it’s critical to get a patient off the mountain and to hospital, you just don’t have time for long debate and consensus decision-making. It’s much better to have one person clearly in charge, even if he’s not the best qualified, than to entertain debate that often ensues when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. In fact, often the team leader is not the most technically proficient person. A good solution is much better than a perfect solution that took double the amount of time to implement.
  2. Keep your hands off — We train our team leaders on a rescue to go sit slightly removed from where all activity is taking place, and to make sure he keeps his radio in his hand, so as to prevent him from actually taking part in rigging and rope-work. The moment the leaders gets too involved in the details he looses critical situational awareness. We in fact run into trouble when the medic or best technical rescuer is the team leader as they tend to lose situation awareness in order to focus on the details.
  3. Go with your trusted team — High performance rescue teams end up working and training together for years, as well as all being close friends. Our rescue team spend a lot of time together in the mountains on our own recreational pursuits. We know each other intimately and we will not take a new person on rescue regardless of his technical ability. This may sound elitist or exclusionary to outsiders, but is a critical element of making an effective and safe team. When you’re in subzero temperature, little visibility at 3am in the morning, you need to have a level of familiarity with each other that only comes with time.
  4. Training — When you’re tired, wet and cold, it’s training that ensures that we maintain a safe environment. Training is the “hygene factor” which allows us to make difficult calls in tough circumstances — purely because the basics is second nature and we don’t have to think much about it. The training environment is also where one has the chance to debate, question and analyze various techniques and scenarios. There is very little place for that during an actual rescue.
  5. Dealing with ambiguity — On the evening of 14 June 2010 I’d just sat down to watch a Soccer World Cup game being played between Italy and Paraguay in Cape Town. Three hours later we’re 200km away in knee-deep snow rescuing two youngsters who nearly succumbed after being overcome by an unexpected storm. On Halloween in 2012 I’d just come out of a movie when we get paged. 12 hours later we land thousands of miles away in a foreign country having been deployed along with the Air Force to search for a missing civilian plane. I’m not sure whether comfort with this level of ambiguity can be taught, but you certainly need to have it when dealing with crisis. Anything can happen and you need to be able to adapt.

Implications for Executives — Having a single person in charge and maintaining a little distance from the details translates well to most executive settings. Trust explains why so many executives will replace a senior team with known associates when they take over in a turn-around situation. Lastly, culture is a great replacement for the role training plays in rescue teams. With a strong culture many difficulties can be overcome. As my entrepreneurship lecturer at MIT says “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

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