|The team celebrating on learning Sharon and Dwayne had reached the summit.|
The whole team was ecstatic. Sharon and Dwayne were on their way down from the summit of Everest. Sharon had become the first woman from the western hemisphere to summit the world’s highest mountain; we had climbed by a route no-one had successfully climbed before (and in fact no-one has climbed it since), and we had accomplished these world firsts with a tight team of thirteen, limited use of supplemental oxygen and no hired load carriers. We all felt we were on top of the world.
However, there was more in store for us as a close-knit team that had set a standard that included the highest safety objectives in a seriously hazardous environment: we had agreed to make every decision with the overriding requirement that everyone came home alive.
We had a second summit team ready and eager to make their own attempt. Barry and Albi had graciously stepped aside to allow Sharon and Dwayne to make her historic reach for the summit with the maximum resources in support. Now, the ropes and camps were in place, the route was open, and I had promised Barry and Albi they could go for it if we had the resources to support them.
But we didn’t. A crucial element of our safety plan was to have support climbers on the mountain behind our summit team, ready to come to their rescue if they got into trouble. Everyone else on the team was exhausted, burnt out, drained by three months of grueling effort under punishing conditions. We had no support climbers to send up with them.
I made the most difficult decision of my climbing career and told Barry and Albi they had to come down. They couldn’t accept it and we argued back and forth for hours – they insisted they were experienced and fit, they understood the risks, the prize was there for the taking.
This is a classic collision of perspective. As climbers, Barry and Albi could see their most coveted goal within reach, could feel their commitment, their self-confidence, their belief in their ability to get the job done. I could feel all that – I am a climber too. But as leader, I was stewarding a wider perspective – I remembered and remained committed to our foundational value of safety for everyone, I knew it couldn’t be set aside and remain a genuinely primary belief. It was my job to stand up for that value, the primacy of that belief, alongside our climbing ambitions.
I had good reason. In the previous few years, I had found my best friend’s body after a fatal fall from an ice climb in the Rockies. Not long after, my brother was killed in an avalanche. On our previous expedition to Everest, four people had been killed in two separate incidents, both preventable with better leadership and planning, in my opinion. I was more than primed to treat safety as a top priority – I had committed to the expedition with a clear understanding that we all agreed we were bringing everyone back alive, no matter what.
Years later, in his memoir, The Calling, Barry described our difference as “a banker’s decision, not a climber’s.” (Our principle sponsor was a bank, and he was suggesting I didn’t want to risk anything going wrong after the big win we had just recorded, for the sake of wowing the sponsor.) I believe this is a misunderstanding. My decision was a leader’s decision – if safety is your highest value, you don’t put people at risk for the sake of a seductively tempting goal.
This was my first really conscious experience of exercising a key leadership capability when the stakes were high – the ability to hold competing elements of a dilemma as equally important, to see them in a both/and context, not an either/or context. Polarization is dramatic and emotionally seductive. Acting from a full valuing of competing intentions is difficult, but it is the responsible way, especially when lives are at stake.
Whether it is delivering a record level of production, cutting costs to the bone, maximizing quarterly results, if you have compromised safety, you haven’t achieved anything lasting or worthwhile. If you get away with it, even multiple times, you have achieved only a temporary victory. Inevitably, the odds will catch up with you.
Over and over again, even in organizations that insist safety is top priority, I see people subordinating safety to performance goals. Only when a tragedy takes place do the true human values rise to the surface and a concerted effort is made to walk the safety talk.
A leader must hold the competing figures of every dilemma as equally important, and act from that perspective.
When the urge to act, to push through despite the risks, is strong, that is the moment to pause and reflect on what is really important.