Imagine this, you are the expedition leader to summit Mt Everest. The weather is closing in fast and you and your party had planned to have the climb completed two hours prior. One person is showing the first signs of altitude sickness and your team have just run out of oxygen bottles. There are seventy feet left to climb. It seems simple on the face of it; stop here and turn back or push on and take the risk.
What do you do?
On the face of it, this would seem a simple problem with a simple answer, and yet time and again leaders make decisions that seem to fly in the face of reason or logic. After all, it’s only seventy feet and just think of the rewards….so, let’s do a quick reassess and just push on.
Back at base camp the conversation while planning the ascent was much, much different.
“If we run out of oxygen we turn back.”
“If anyone shows signs of altitude sickness, we turn back.”
“If the weather closes in, we’ll turn back.”
Now, high up on the mountain, the leader has the trifecta of issues and an invisible line has been crossed. The problem is, that as the leader, once you make the decision to cross a line in the sand created in the relative safety of the planning room the risks are exponentially higher. Perhaps crossing the line was a direct result of the leader also being affected by altitude sickness, or worse still an ego-driven decision and it wouldn’t have mattered the circumstances at all, the leader was going for the summit no matter the cost.
One of the most important jobs of a leader is to be able to make the tough call to not set foot over their pre-determined line. If a line has been agreed in the relative safety and comfort of the planning room, then the line needs to be respected out in the real world.
I practised this as a leader in Afghanistan. I would always have multiple lines in the sand for every mission. These ranged from the number of wounded I was willing to accept, the number of KIA dependant on the mission, vehicle and asset damages I was willing to absorb and key equipment losses. Some of these lines in the sand were also dictated to me. For example, the loss of Aeronautical Medical Evacuation Platforms was a mission abort criteria. On many occasions, I came close to these lines in the sand and prepared myself and my men for aborting missions. On two occasions I stopped my platoon from completing our mission because we were reinforcing failure by continuing.
A line in the sand is an excellent way to ensure that personalities and circumstances have less role to play in the outcome. A well-planned abort criteria, clearly outlined and understood and subsequently monitored, will ensure that a leader has a line in the sand to remove themselves and their teams from danger.