in extremis: in extreme circumstances; especially: at the point of death
Over the last three days, my partners and I had the rare and immense privilege to attend an intimate event for the Village Ventures network on leadership at West Point, our nation’s oldest military academy. On many different levels, it was one of the most unique and rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life.
Among the many speakers we heard from was Colonel Tom Kolditz, an internationally recognized behavioral scientist who teaches “In Extremis Leadership” at the academy. What is that? It’s leadership, albeit with a different twist. The leadership skills that he teaches are used in situations where if not executed properly, people die.
Colonel Kolditz has made the study of leadership his life’s work and shared with us many of the characteristics that great leaders posses. However, in crisis situations, quantitatively there are three that stand out above all else. Competence, trust, and loyalty, in that order. Perhaps the most eye opening however is just how important competence ranks. When people’s lives are on the line, competence wins out by a mile, we’re talking orders of magnitude. Nothing else comes close. He explained to us graphically that when the spit hits the fan in war and the situation is at its most dire, everyone looks to the most competent person in the group to get them out alive, even rank can go out the window.
The Colonel then went on to share with us that he’s worked with many of the top business leaders in the country and that he believes in today’s economic crisis (though bullets aren’t flying), employees believe that their lives really are on the line. It’s not simply that they might lose their job, it’s exacerbated by “where in the world will I find another?” More than ever, employees are looking to their CEOs for competence, trust and loyalty.
I’ll try and synthesize his message as succinctly as possible. If you’re a CEO or part of a management team, your employees are looking at you right now to measure how bad things really are. Everything you say and do is under the magnifying glass. Your body language during these difficult times might be the difference between your company surviving and imploding. As Medal of Honor recipient Harold Wilson once said “Courage is the art of being the only one who knows that you’re scared to death.”
When the Colonel’s time with us was finished that afternoon, we were split into groups to experience activities with the cadets. I had chosen rock climbing with the West Point climbing team. We were outfitted and led to the academy’s six-story state-of the art climbing facility. After accomplishing a few of the easier routes, I sought out a tougher climb. Before I knew it, I found myself clinging to an inverted (tilting towards the floor) wall 40 feet up staring down at Matt, a 19 year-old cadet who was my climbing partner and belaying for me.
He was yelling up at me to make a leap and grab a hold with one hand to complete a particularly difficult section. The only thing between a slip and a 40-foot fall was the rope that connected us and my confidence in the gear and Matt’s skills. I tried the move three separate times and missed, each time slamming into the wall with the rope pulling taught and saving me each time, ending up swinging like a cat’s toy. Completely exhausted, with fingers bleeding and every muscle in my arms and legs trembling, I was ready to quit.
As I clung to the wall and heard Matt yelling at me not to give up, my thoughts drifted to Colonel Kolditz’s message. I had 100% confidence in Matt’s competence. This 19-year old, became my leader and I trusted him. I gave it one more try and made it. Drenched in sweat and shaking, I managed to climb the last 20 feet and made it to the top of the route. After rappelling down, I gave Matt a hug and thanked him for such a rewarding life experience.
In summary, I can’t finish sharing this experience without mentioning that had I left West Point with nothing more than the time I was able to spend with the cadets and Matt in particular, it would have been an incredibly memorable encounter. These young men & women inspired me in a way that chipped away decades of accumulated cynicism and for me, restored some faith in the future of our country. Despite the fact that every one of these kids will shortly be commanding troops in the most dangerous places in the world, their pride, honor and optimism shone through like a blinding light. I will carry this experience with me for the rest of my life.