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Leadership lessons from the world’s most extreme places

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With more than 30 expeditions under his belt, from traversing sea ice in the Arctic to travelling solo in the Antarctic and climbing Mount Everest, Mark Wood has some jaw-dropping stories to tell. “All explorers are storytellers. That’s our job. Armstrong, Amundsen, Scott – we come back and honestly portray what happened out there,” says the weathered 53-year-old.

And that includes some useful lessons for anyone facing the challenges of leadership and decision-making amid the COVID-19 outbreak. From the perils of indecision to making the difficult call to abandon a mission when lives are on the line, Wood has experienced some of the toughest forms of project management possible, in some of the world’s most dangerous environments. Here’s what he’s learned along the way.

Snap decisions in the death zone

Everest’s ‘death zone’ is the highest part of the mountain, 7,500m above sea level. The oxygen is so limited that your body starts shutting down. In May 2019, 11 climbers died there in just one week.

In 2013, Wood was one of a team of four on an expedition to reach the summit as part of an education project with Skype and Microsoft. His objective was to make a Skype call to 10,000 children in California (and the tech bosses) once he had climbed to the top.

One night, 200m from Everest’s peak, Wood and his three team members were roped onto a safety line in minus 45 degrees with a battering 50mph side wind. “You feel knackered. Every step that you take is a thought. If you stand there and think of all the badness about it, you will fail, and you will head back down,” Wood explains. “The mind is an incredible tool because it will allow you to push through things that you feel you are generally not capable of doing.”

Despite the conditions, the team had found its rhythm. “We were there, at the centre of this project, at the real core of it, and we were working effectively,” says Wood.

Suddenly, the lead guide dropped to his knees and fell straight into the mountain face. “It was pitch black. I went up behind him and pulled him close,” says Wood. “I pushed his goggles back to look at his eyes, which were all over the place.” Wood went back to find his team doctor. But his doctor was unable to go on, as his feet were frozen, and Wood then saw his other guide abseiling down, away from the situation.

“All of this happened within 20 seconds, and I needed to make a decision,” says Wood. “I looked up and I could see the head-torches of the climbers reaching the summit – I was that close. After 72 days on the mountain, I was that close.” Wood chose to abort the expedition and bring his guide down to basecamp, where he quickly recovered. It was a very close call. After a year of training, Wood’s promises to the schoolchildren and his sponsors lay in tatters.

In extremis

As Wood discovered on Everest, what’s important in a crisis situation is simply making a decision. Inaction can be lethal for any project. “The worst thing you can do is not make a decision, because you are going down a road that isn’t working,” he explains.

“Instinctively, you should know when things aren’t working – that’s when you step back and speak to other people. The key to leading a project is comms, but you need to know how to communicate. If you speak to individuals you get fast, clear reactions,” Wood adds.

Wrong or right, a decision taken in extremis must be debriefed by everyone in the team. The way to do it is to run ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ debriefs, according to Wood. A hot debrief records everyone’s feelings when they are still close to the situation (Wood likes to tape these). “To record it in the moment is so important,” he says, because your memories of it will change over time, and you will forget the pressures you were facing.

Wood recommends making a hard copy of the recording, getting everyone to read it and then running a cold debrief a week or two later. “I say, ‘This is why we made these decisions, and if somebody has got something on their mind, this is the place to say it.’ Everybody in the room should have the freedom to say everything they want to say at that point.” These debriefs allow everyone to unpick what happened, make peace with the decision and understand the lessons that will inform the future of the project.

Leading from the back

The best way to lead a project, says Wood, is from the back – a tip he picked up when skiing to the north and south poles. “Physically leading from the back when you’re in a line skiing along means you can see how your team are performing,” he explains. “In terms of business projects, you can be great at leading, but you are not necessarily the greatest person in the room. You’ve got a team of 20 people because they are very good at what they do specifically.

“You are managing the project, so you see the final outcome, the timeline, and you’re tasking these guys to operate within their own freedom and creativity. If you’re a good enough manager and have been honest with them, they will then come to you and say when they are struggling.”

Leading from the back also means planning for things that can go wrong. “Put in a plan B, a plan C and a plan D to compensate,” says Wood. “As a project manager, you are continuously assessing the movement of the project as it’s going forward.”


This story originally appeared in the Spring issue of Project journal. Read the full article An adventurer into extremes (🔒) or Download the latest digital issue now.

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