Knowledge Center

Lessons From Everest Disaster

By Timothy Bentley

It was an early May afternoon on Mount Everest, and a score of cold, exhausted climbers were staggering the final few hundred meters toward the crest.

Without warning, a powerful storm churned up the slope, engulfing them in violent wind and blinding snow.

By the time the sky cleared a day later, eight had frozen to death, and among those who survived, a doctor would return to his family with his face disfigured and parts of both arms amputated.

This largest disaster on Everest rekindled public concern about the mountain. Coincidentally, an IMAX crew were near the summit that fatal day, and their film provides a powerful glimpse of the challenges it poses.

The perils of Everest have much to teach us about success in organizational life, because they mirror risks in the corporate environment.

They are multiple and inter-connected. At 8800 meters, the density of air is one third that at sea level. The limbs become weak, eyes and throat ache, lucid thought is almost impossible. One climber described his mental capacity as that of "a slow child".

Solar radiation generates agonizing headaches. Bitter temperatures can freeze the larynx, and turn limbs into claws. Hypothermia leaves climbers staggering like drunks, unable to think or speak clearly. Dehydration looms, and the reduced air pressure can lead to death by pulmonary or cerebral edema.

Breakaway chunks of rock and ice on the Khombu glacier, some the size of refrigerators, tumble randomly from the heights. And while Everest is not the most technically challenging mountain of the Himalayas, there is always the risk of falling a couple of kilometers from a razor-back ridge in Nepal down the cliffside into Tibet.

Climbers call this region "The Death Zone", and on their way through it, pass the still- frozen bodies of people who died on Everest ten and twenty years ago.

Whenever people choose to experiment with extreme physical conditions, they illuminate in bold relief those challenges we face routinely at ground level. Apollo 14 demonstrated how team work can save lives. The Titanic disaster reminds us that whatever happens to be the latest technology is not invincible.

We learn far more from our failures than our successes.

When I've spoken to executive groups about Everest, I suggest that the storm, no matter how vicious, did not kill the climbers. They were victims of grave and unnecessary mistakes made by their leaders.

Without minimizing their tragedy, I try to point out some frightening parallels to the way our businesses are run at ground level, routine executive errors that endanger both individuals and organizations.

Physical and emotional exhaustion

On the day of the disaster, May 10, 1996, the two most experienced leaders on the mountain were severely impaired by oxygen starvation and fatigue. They were no longer leading, but literally following their less-experienced clients up the slope.

They remind me of the executives of a software organization which is poised to dominate in its field. For more than a year, they have been working close to exhaustion. At times they've been depressed, at risk for health problems, and operating at less than full efficiency. With their peripheral vision impaired by anxiety, they have failed to seek adequate shelter from dangerous corporate storms.

In a recent survey, 88 per cent of executives in large companies reported elevated levels of stress, unhealthy personality traits, or a predisposition to illnesses like cancer and heart disease. In the words of one ghoulish commentator, they're on their way from basket cases to casket cases.

Here's what leaders at ground level can learn: The foundation for success, whether on the slopes or in the towers, is to maintain your own health and well-being. Never allow a sense of physical invincibility to cloud your judgment. It -- whatever that "it" may be -- can happen to you.

Disregard for the safety of others

Before their groups approached the summit, halfway to the stratosphere, the senior guides agreed to send an advance team to install safety lines. But when the exhausted climbers arrived, the ropes had not been installed, the so-called leaders were still far below, and their assistants near the top had not been given radios for communication.

Perhaps the most persistent safety issue in organizational life is a failure to share information effectively. The problem is rarely a lack of technological solutions. The most costly failures occur when busy -- or shy -- executives fail to communicate, communicate, and communicate.

Battered by storms, they're more likely to batten down the hatches than to talk to people face to face.

Ground Level Learning: I tell leaders, "Even if you have no information to provide staff about a critical issue, it's better for morale to tell them you don't know, than to delay communication until you do."

This is where ethics and pragmatism meet. Those confided to your care are of great worth. If in doubt, ask someone you trust to help assess the quality of your communication, both in ordinary times and during emergencies.

The unexpected

Leaders expose their people to the likelihood of disaster when they fail to anticipate. Chaos theory teaches one predictable fact about today's business culture: that random events, like that rogue Himalayan storm, are the rule, not the exception.

That's why we need a corporate mentality which constantly scans the environment for new signals, hostile or supportive. In an age of insistent global and technological change, we need executives with sufficient curiosity to develop tentative answers before the questions are ever asked. For instance, what opportunities and risks are posed to your organization by galloping Internet growth, the Asian meltdown, the year 2000 bug, the 1998 ice storm, the 500-channel universe?

Ground Level Learning: Mountain climbers depend on fixed lines for their lives. The corporate climber will find safety in the lines of information feedback, a continuous learning culture in the executive suite.

The testosterone factor

Another factor which led to disaster was the triumph of a competitive, aggressive attitude over the voice of wisdom. Now I'll admit that no one gets to the top of Everest by being laid-back and passive. Successful climbers, like many executives, are driven people.

The paradox is that a competitive spirit can distort your ability to see clearly, and may destroy personal relationships. The events of the past decade have shattered trust but not memory, and in this age no one can afford to climb the ladder on other people's fingers. We're seeing the power of win/win.

Today's pacesetters are those who build on co-operation and collaboration. A wise new vice-president told me, "My strategy to make myself look good is to surround myself with people who are smarter than me."

Ground Level Learning: Keep a close check on your ambition. It can make you a success or it can nudge you over the precipice. There is more to life than winning, and sometimes there's more to winning than winning.

Failure to be one's best self

Ultimately the Everest tragedy was the failure of personal integrity. One guide, for instance, forbade his clients to climb beyond 2 p.m., to ensure enough time for a safe return to camp. Yet after 2 p.m. this mountaineer was still climbing toward the summit -- and his last breaths.

In organizational life, there is decreasing tolerance for leaders who don't walk their talk. The HR director for a Canadian auto maker recently told me: "We say all the popular things about corporate culture and valuing the employee -- but it doesn't show in how we actually treat people. We talk a lot about our approach to employees being better, but we've actually lost ground, so we're behind where we were ten years ago."

Is it any surprise that 75 per cent of respondents surveyed recently said their CEOs did not provide effective role models, nor did their actions match their words.

Ground Level Learning: Keep checking that you're walking your talk. History has a nasty habit of recording the names of those who, like Pontius Pilate and Attila the Hun, imagine themselves to be above principle.

None of the lessons we've learned from the Everest disaster can bring back the eight who died. But those who profit by them may save future lives on the mountain, or preserve careers here at ground level.

Timothy Bentley is Chief Operating Officer of Panoramic Feedback.

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