What do team effectiveness, decision-making, and rescue operations in high mountains have in common?

How did a random group of people, who did not know each other, create such a remarkable, super-effective team that achieved the impossible?

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The Matterhorn commands great respect, regardless of whether viewed from the Italian or Swiss side. It is not surprising then that the summit waited for its conqueror for quite some time – only 150 years have passed since the first ascent, which was made by a team of seven, led by the 25-year-old Briton, Edward Whymper. The success was also a tragedy, as four mountaineers died on the way back.

The technical difficulties on the Matterhorn, while significant, are nothing compared to the legendary north face of the Eiger. Although the mountain itself does not belong to the highest (it stands at 13,000 feet), its northern, 5,900-foot wall is considered one of the most serious climbing challenges in the Alps. From the 1930s, leading European climbers took on the mountain … and lost, often paying the highest price. No wonder that the Nordwand was quickly renamed the “Mordwand” – the murderous wall.


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One of the dramas took place in 1936, when during the bold attack on the summit, four daredevils died: Edi Rainer, Willy Angerer, Anderl Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz – Jon Krakauer wrote about these events in his book “Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains,” and in 2007, a docudrama “The Beckoning Silence” was made, which reconstructed the ill-fated expedition.

The first ascent of the north wall was made in 1938 by a four-man Austrian-German team, composed of Heinrich Harrer, Fritz Kasparek, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg. Subsequent attempts were interrupted by the war, and the climbers returned to the legendary mountain only at the end of the 1940s.

In 1957, another tragedy took place on the Eiger, and the accompanying rescue operation is still considered one of the most remarkable examples of cooperation and sacrifice in the mountains. After two days of climbing, on August 3 at 3:00 a.m., two Italians, Claudio Corti, and Stefano Longhi, joined forces with the German duo Günther Nothdurft and Franz Mayer to tackle the north wall. It was a treacherous climb – because of rapidly-changing weather conditions in which mountaineers quickly lost their way on the wall, the battle to reach the top soon became a fight for life.

Due to officially communicated regulations forbidding rescuers from Grindelwald on the north wall, a rescue party spontaneously formed consisting of climbers from seven countries present in the area. The group of 50 people was coordinated by Ludwig “Wiggerl” Gramminger, assisted by, among others, Italy’s famous Ricardo Cassin, and Lionel Terray from France, who had, in 1947, become only the second person to ascend the north wall. The following days demonstrated one of the most moving examples of genuine team spirit, commitment, motivation, and innovation, resulting in the rescue of Claudio Corti. Unfortunately, he was the only one saved. Stefano Longhi died, waiting for help, and both Germans remained missing; their bodies undiscovered until 1961.

I wondered what caused a random group of people, who did not know each other, to create such a remarkable, super-effective team that achieved the impossible? What triggered the powerful involvement of people who not only underwent immense physical and mental effort but even risked their own health and lives? Answers to these questions came quite quickly.

Vision

First of all, the team had a vision (saving as many climbers as possible), the realization of which, was deeply believed. In business conditions, unfortunately, we often forget how an effective “binder” can become a thrilling vision in which our people believe. We focus on strategies and specific goals, we treat the vision with a degree of neglect.

Even if we communicate it, we do not pay too much attention to it and often our effort goes to waste. I always say that there are three golden rules of communication: make sure the message has reached the recipient (i.e. those who were meant to hear about the vision, actually heard it), make sure it was properly understood (as the sender has assumed, not the way it was convenient to interpret by the recipient) and most importantly – that it was bought into, that is, recipients deeply believe in its feasibility and identify with it.

In the case of the rescue mission in 1957, these three conditions were met, and the vision became the driving force of the whole undertaking.

Values

People in the pursuit of values can do extraordinary things, often showing commitment, which is difficult to buy even for very large sums of money. Look at the rescue operations after natural disasters, look at the assistance activities, look at the actions of charity workers and volunteers. And in business? Values are often treated as HR window dressing, not translating into concrete results.

This is a fatal approach, depriving managers of an effective recruitment and motivation tool – if we can clearly define what distinguishes us on the market and then hire people who believe in the same values, we can be confident about their involvement.

Vengeance

It is often said that people unite against a common enemy – it is sufficient to look at the amazing levels of commitment found in terrorist cells, hooligan environments, and extreme factions of political and religious organizations. In business, too, we often reach for metaphors from the battlefield, talking about conquering the market or engaging in a price war with competitors.

A great motivator also turns out to be anger at failure (even if we get angry at ourselves). For this reason, we should not suppress it – if we conduct the discussion well, we can not only understand the mistakes made but also release the incredible energy in the team. If you don’t believe me, ask any sports trainer how greatly the desire to take revenge on a rival motivates.

What angered the 50 Eiger heroes? The prohibition of rescue action by the Grindelwald authorities motivated by a lack of faith in the likely success of a rescue attempt and extreme danger. It broke the two previously described ‘V’s: vision and values.

Let’s never forget this lesson. If we want people to be truly motivated and engaged, then – both in extreme climbing and in business – there are three components we have to keep in mind. A clear vision, guiding one’s actions, shared values that bind people, creating a genuine team spirit; and emotions (both positive and negative!), that become the fuel.

Pawel Motyl is one of the leading European experts in leadership, decision-making, talent management, and exponential technologies. In October 2016, he was selected for the elite global group of Marshall Goldsmith’s “100 Coaches” initiative. Interested in other lessons businesses can learn from mountaineering? Do not miss “Labyrinth. The Art of Decision-Making.”


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