Brenda Zetina
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What Did We Learn From the 1996 Catastrophe on Everest?

By Brenda Zetina | Fri, 07/29/2022 - 11:00

We have already heard a thousand times about what leadership means and how it should be aligned to the present in which we live, and much of this theory is valid in day-to-day practice, especially when there are important eventualities that further test this theory.

First, let’s be clear that when we talk about leadership it is not only in a job context but in sports, family, society or on a flight. Therefore, the role of a leader must be one that precisely defines a strategy based on experience and knowledge.

You may have heard of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster where more than five people, including two of the most experienced climbers in the world, lost their lives due to different factors but let me summarize the point from a leadership perspective.

In this tragedy, these two mountaineers led a group of climbers who longed to climb the most dangerous and challenging mountain in the world. Some of them had already reached the summit before but for others it was their first time while others still were determined to keep trying until they could make it. Unfortunately, significant situations arose that made the climb more challenging, including the sudden change in weather that made it difficult to stay on Mount Everest, as well as several logistical problems that triggered poor decision-making by the tour guides.

Most people who belong to a team have various motivations for wanting to achieve their goals but the main ones are social, economic, esteem, self-realization and self-improvement. Indeed, in the case of Everest, it was no different. The climbers wanted to reach their goal, they were prepared for it and that was what motivated them.

The guides on the other hand, of course, wanted to see their team reach the top; that was their role, to be their guide and give their team the best tools within the process so that everyone could succeed.

But the tragedy happened and beyond all the external elements, the decision-making of the leaders was truly vital. The rules were not followed as they were established from the beginning. In addition, the times set for returning to camp were not respected; knowing that there was a recommended time limit to descend, perhaps it was ignored due to the impetus to continue.

As part of a team and as leaders, we must have a strategy that is based on knowledge and experience that we can apply when there is that impetus to continue knowing that the integrity of the team or one of the members is at risk (speaking in whatever context). What is prudent, intelligent and necessary is to stop, analyze the situation and execute the strategy that will guarantee the stability and success of the group.

Regarding the Everest case, I want to clarify that I am not trying to give you the idea that the catastrophe was the fault of the leaders or the fault of those who wanted to reach their goal no matter what. I am just establishing this event as a reference.

Returning to the point of leadership, when we are at the head of a team or faced with some situation, there are several factors that we must take into consideration when applying a strategy that benefits the team in general. At this time, I want to focus on motivation. The motivation I have as a leader to lead a team to success; the motivation of each member of the team and what really moves them; and finally, the context in which each of us lives because from that particular context of each human being arises empathy. From empathy, collaboration and teamwork arise. That teamwork is what not only leads the team to success but also what encourages the team to care for and support the leader because a leader without a team that follows his guidance is not a leader. What that guide/leader must contribute to the team is all the knowledge and experience that triggers a strategy and a goal in which the team believes and identifies with so that the success of achieving it is only one consequence. As my great friend and life coach has always told me, the journey all the way to the top should be enjoyed as much or more than reaching the summit.

Photo by:   Brenda Zetina