When Chaos Threatens, What’s the Call?

This is an analogy.

Granted, not many analogies begin by giving the reader a heads-up of this sort. But this is an important enough analogy that I want to be as clear and empathic as possible.

Yvon Chouinard, in his most recent movie “180 South” and throughout his life, said, “The adventure doesn’t begin until something goes wrong.” I couldn’t agree more! And, when something does go wrong—which is inevitable—what’s the best plan of attack to make things right?

It was a fateful back-country, hut-to-hut ski trip some 30+ years ago. I had led, guided, and recreated on many such ski trips before. For the most part, all of them went just fine. (Music darkens slightly… the quiet grows into a void that begs to be filled…)

But when this particular ski trip started to go bad… it went really bad. But amidst the chaos, I remembered the call: That I was prepared, and had planned to rely on the good, the tried, and the true.

On this particular three-day trip, I was acting as the leader-guide as well as a friend to many, but not all, on the trip. Leader-guide and friend: a balance one doesn’t always anticipate will be defined and tested during an “adventure”—or when things go bad.

No Problemville… When “It’s All Good”
Our first day’s ski-climb up out of Aspen went as expected. It was a moderate-to-easy gain in elevation in a six-mile-long first day to the first warm and inviting hut, the McNamara Hut*. The weather was great; a clear and cold Colorado Bluebird day; and a weather forecast for some moderate-to-heavy snowfall the following two days.

The group of about twelve friends hailed mostly from the Boulder area. We had a great time our first night at the hut. Wood-burning stoves ablaze, knickers, “poly-pro tops”, slippers, and the occasional top cap for visiting the outdoors for the fresh night air, maybe a moonlit ski… or caring for the cold outhouse necessities.

The dinner the group had packed-in was grand. The wine was warming. Close friends of many years were, in the grandest and most pleasing way, in their element!

Early the next morning it was obvious we were in for some snowy but beautiful backcountry skiing to the next hut, Margy’s Hut. Again, not a long ski of about seven miles, but some tricky up’s and down’s through the trees and on trails that would be slick underneath, snow-covered on top, and easy to “catch an edge” should anyone have difficulty negotiating the trail with a sizeable backpack on their back.

In Reality, It’s Rarely All Good for Long
And difficulties did one skier have…Not far out of the hut, Dawn had one of those “stupid”—like it didn’t even seem like she actually fell—falls. But it was immediately obvious she had torn something very badly in her knee joint. Dawn was out of commission, and not going anywhere but to the ER, any which way we could get her there… fast. The numbing and swelling that was creeping into her knee and foot indicated the tear was a bad one. And being in the pre-cell phone era, an ol’ fashioned mountain rescue was in play.

When Chaos Threatens? You Better Have Already Prepared, Know the Basics… And Not Try All-Things New and Different!
Fortunately, the basics of mountain rescue and emergency medical training kicked in immediately for me. Beyond “the ABC’s” (Awake? Breathing? Continue Care.), we were able to stabilize, ice pack, keep warm using a sleeping bag and emergency foil blanket, lightly medicate for pain and swelling, hydrate, feed, and pack-in Dawn for what would likely be a very long rest of the day into the evening and increasing cold.

Since I was now acting as guide and rescue leader, I had to give the balance of the group the best directions to the next hut, and tell them that I would hopefully be meeting them later that night after Dawn was secured and safe. One of the other stronger skiers, Peter, offered to assist in the rescue.

Well, to make an exciting story a bit shorter so we can get to the application of a very important analogy, I skied back to our first day’s hut and grabbed a full-length rescue toboggan that I knew was stored there.

After securing Dawn and many hours of breaking trail in the new, heavy snow fall, losing control of the rescue toboggan twice as we were all pulled down a steep hill-side we had to traverse to get to the valley floor in Lenado—where we would contact the EMT’s in Aspen… It was nearly six hours before Dawn and Peter were secure in the ambulance and heading home.

Digging Deeper: A Trust and Temerity… for the Tried and True
Solo now, I had decided to begin an entirely new jaunt to our second hut by a different route and (hopefully) meet the balance of the group there… so I hoped. I knew the trip would be long and hard as I was now breaking trail solo, after a very long day. My strategy?

I dug deeper into the basics! And didn’t even consider trying something new.

One sure sign of wisdom and preparedness is the lack of a disarming sense of surprise when things go wrong. For me (highly fallible in many challenging situations and refined by making many mistakes), this principle went like this:

I was trained, tried, and fit for the long effort; I knew my limits; I got hydrated and had plenty more water to drink; I had the right equipment; I was plenty warm (but not too warm for dehydration and sweating-freezing sake) at the core level; I was amply supplied with “accessible carbohydrates” (the ones my body needed for the job); I knew the six or so mile trail well enough (by sight of by feel) to find my way in the dark; and, very importantly, I was fully prepared to dig-in and sleep in the snow if it all went bad.

It was about four hours later when I finally reached the second hut… and the very surprised and welcoming hugs and hollers of all the fine folks cozied-up inside! Being prepared, trusting, staying focused, calm, sticking with the basics, and placing one ski in front of the other had paid off. (Oh, and lest you wonder how my present-day faith in God played a role, it didn’t exist at the time of this adventure.)

The Analogy Pay-Off: When (not if) Challenges Come, When is “NEW” Better, or Much Worse?
Even though it’s more complicated than we can fully ingest “at the table together”, suffice it to say that when most organizations (of one person or thousands) experience a challenge of any kind, there is a tendency to introduce “new and exciting ideas” in order to get things back on track. (RE: Bright shiny toys or “a business trip fling” during the mid-life crisis… another management shake-up during a business downturn… “too big to fail” dogma… “get the consultants in again”…)

This, I believe, is a dire mistake based on a variety of issues but the most important handful is that leadership has,

a) Historically been remiss in realistically, transparently, and continuously tracking their successes, missteps, and areas of opportunity and improvement in the context of a tried, true, and vital: Vision, Mission, set of Core Values, and a Market and Customer-Centric planning process. Challenges + no context = scramble for something new.

b) A misguided sense that “new” always equates to “exciting and motivating”. Challenges + “new” = inappropriate and unnecessary demands for immediate adjustments and course correction.

c) An instinctual (and likely unknown) sense of embarrassment (lack of self-awareness and humility) when pondering how to get folks “back to the basics”… when “the basics” have been so infrequently relied upon, seldom communicated, or completely unrecognized and unrewarded in the past. Challenges + “Vision vertigo” = “new direction kneejerk”, pasta throwing, distractions.

d) A potentially “concretized set of beliefs/behaviors” that surrounds leadership—with little room for countercultural, outside the organizational box, yet Vision-based ideas. Challenges + “mini-me’s” = “organizational enabling”… it’s complicated and rarely productive.

“So… Let’s try something new…”“So… Let’s try something new…” “So… Let’s try something new…”
Be very careful: each refrain may be setting the organization up for another, “’So… Let’s try something new…’” whiplash that (in the vast majority of cases) it cannot… it will not… foster or sustain greatness.

NOTE: Right smack dab in the midst of any challenge… is a time when most every aspect of the organization (including a very injured, pain-ridden and anxious Dawn… by analogy) is the least likely to be capable of hearing or following the beat of a different drummer; the words or explanations of a new paradigm; the vision of a brand new journey; the motivation of new ideas… that are evidently supposed to be neatly packaged with all the intrinsic trust and empowerment that only comes with time-tested principles.

Don’t misunderstand, the change management principles I’m supporting say, “Change is good, but not always for the different, but rather, for the deeper!

The “Life-As-Adventure” Bottom-Line
Good to great leaders… back-country skiers… interesting people… will fully embrace, and be awake each day to the reality and difficulties associated with “The adventure doesn’t begin until something goes wrong.” As we all know, it’s quite easy to say that we know and love that philosophy of life, but it’s quite another thing to live it!

Please consider these closing truisms:

  1. The very best preparation for the unavoidable challenges of life is the proactive, preemptive preparedness of formulating and executing one’s Vision, Mission, and Core Values each and every day. The gales will come; the keel is deep; True North never changes… and a good lifeboat is acquired and equipped before setting sail!
  2. Regardless of whether every cultural indicator tells us “boring equates to a mortal sin”, and “shallowness is the key to a happy-go-lucky-life”, the truth is that formulating and moving ever-deeper into the execution of one’s Vision (Mission, Core Values) is by far the most exciting adventure a human being can ever take. Boldly, yet humbly, with trust, agility and compassion… please… go where few men and organizations have gone before!
  3. Please take the time ASAP, if not sooner, to answer three questions, “If you were on trial for formulating and executing your own personal or corporate Vision, Mission, Core Values, and a Market and Customer-Centric planning process, would there be enough evidence to convict you? If you were found lacking in this regard, would you commit to making it a priority in the next month? Regardless of your answers, would you consider answering the questions within a small community of folks who might be interested in an adventure?”
  4. Today, “A Trust and Temerity… for the Tried and True” falls on the deafness created by the din of new, exciting, titillating, immediate, “my fingerprint on the organization”, nuanced, convenient, compromise, and self-… glorification or protection. And none of these can ever equate to enduring greatness… or simply living a life of breath-taking adventure… fully seen, true, awake, alive, everlasting… Amen!

See you back at The Training Table soon! On the menu for next week, “Figs, Fathers, Feathers, and Fruit”, based upon The Book of Mark 8:38.

Run the race! Stay the course! Be adventurous!

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