When you’re standing on a six-inch ledge with a 2,000-meter drop straight down, it’s not exactly the ideal time to make critical decisions. But that’s what John Bourke, President of the Business Excellence Institute, had to face as he stood just shy of the peak of one of North America’s tallest mountains.
Between him and the peak was an overhang that required near spider-like abilities to climb. It was an obstacle he just wasn’t prepared for – mentally or physically. After some heart-wrenching deliberation and one final look at the impossible overhang, John decided the only course was to abandon the climb, something he’d prepped for more than a year.
What John didn’t realize at the time was that the biggest obstacle wasn’t, in fact, the overhang. It was his and his teammate’s lack of clear communication during this state of crisis.
Here are a few key lessons we can take from John’s decision-making during high-stakes, high-stress moments:
1. Don’t assume.
Even when things are happening quickly, it’s critical to double-check even the most basic facts at play.
In John’s case, he took one look at the impassible overhang before him and decided it was just too difficult. However, when the guide said the only way up was to go past it, he meant they’d be going around it. By not verifying his understanding of the words each of them used, John significantly overestimated the difficulty and danger of the path forward.
2. Have a system.
In emergencies, ensuring communication is clearly understood can mean the difference between life and death.
One of the most straightforward systems for doing this is simply repeating what the other party has stated back to them and having them verify your understanding is correct. Had John done this, he would have clearly understood they were going around the overhang, not up it.
3. Understand the role of fear and stress.
It’s easy for panic to set in during high-stress moments. And that panic can wreak havoc on your common sense.
If you’ve ever heard stories about people trapped in a burning building because they were trying to push their way through a “pull” door, you know exactly what we mean.
4. Allow more people to have a voice.
While crises certainly require leadership from the top-down, gathering input from the larger group can be a lifesaver. By discussing the options as a group, you avoid myopic thinking and come up with alternative solutions.
While John’s story is a literal cliff-hanger, sooner or later, we all find ourselves on the proverbial ledge, forced to make tough decisions on which path to take forward or to retreat.
When you’re there, be sure to ask yourself what the real obstacles are. And take those few extra minutes to make sure communication isn’t one of them.
To hear the full 20-minute episode “To go forward or retreat while 2,000 meters above certain death” with John Bourke on our Toughest Call podcast – listen wherever you get your podcasts.
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