f (Expedition Leader) = Authority + Open Ear
Cuddle bear or dictator – expedition leaders can be everything between these poles, always looking for the “golden way” to maximum success. How much discussion is useful, how much “Period!” necessary? In the USA, researchers now published an interesting study on the influence of hierarchy on the outcome of expeditions. They interviewed climbers from 27 countries and evaluated the data from a total of 5104 Himalayan expeditions from 1905 until 2012. Their findings: “Hierarchy both elevated and killed in the Himalayas: Expeditions from more hierarchical countries had more climbers reach the summit, but also more climbers die along the way.” Means: Strong hierarchy can increase both summit and fatality rates. On the one hand hierarchy can – due to the lack of permanent discussion – create an atmosphere leading to greater determination. On the other hand it can inhibit low-ranking team members from expressing their doubts, thus increasing the risks for the group. But how can an expedition leader find the right balance? I asked the researchers.
All on the table
“Strong leadership will always be important in mountaineering because group coordination is so crucial”, Eric Anicich of the Columbia Business School in New York writes to me. At the same it is important to create an atmosphere where lower-ranking members in particular feel comfortable speaking up and voicing their concerns, says Eric: “One way to accomplish this is for leaders to establish a psychologically safe group culture before the expedition begins and reinforce that culture during the expedition by specifically encouraging climbers to speak up when they have information to share with the group. Effective leadership requires getting all of the relevant information on the table in order to make the most informed decisions possible.” In other words: Authority paired with an open ear increases the chance of summit success.
I had also asked the researchers whether they had taken into consideration the difference between commercial expeditions (with usually different degrees of performance among the clients) and group expeditions of equally strong climbers. My guess: In commercial expeditions the observed effects should be more pronounced. “I agree with your intuition, but we were not able to test this hypothesis empirically”, says Eric Anicich. He and the other researchers did not have access to reliable data regarding commercial expedition status. “Hierarchy potentially matters more in commercial expeditions where the individual climbers are less likely to know each other before climbing. In this case, a strong leader is needed to coordinate the group’s effort”, Eric believes. “At the same time, climbers on a commercial expedition may be too deferential to the leader, which may prevent them from speaking up and voicing safety concerns.” A narrow ridge. Not that easy to be a good expedition leader.
Date22. January 2015 | 16:08