Leadership thoughts

Leadership of expeditions

I have just finished the excellent 'Mysteries of the Nile' by Richard Bangs and Pascale Scuttaro, an account of a descent of the Blue Nile and then the Nile from Lake Tana to the sea. This is a very considerable achievement and only a fool or someone with no experience of what is involved, or perhaps with time to kill, would dream of criticising the operation based on material drawn from a book rather than from direct experience. In one sense Scuttaro did absolutely nothing wrong since he succeeded in his objective - reaching the sea. And he got no one killed. There are many ways down a river, no single ‘right way’- in fact the right way is any way that works.


The obstacles that Scuttaro and his team have to surmount, mainly the psychological ones mean there are many valuable lessons in the book and it is well worth reading if you are interested in leading expeditions, especially those involving water and Americans.

 Why Americans? Well, this is, par excellance, an American expedition. It is certainly not DIY despite the best attempts of the expedition members to appear like good old boys, these are highly qualified, extremely well backed up, rich, well connected yanks who know what they are doing. They are neutral about the 1968 attempt to run the Blue Nile, which stands as a counterpoint of an old style military style expedition.


But having written that I can immediately think of lots of contradictions. For example Blashford Snell gives his commanders on the ground freedom to make their own decisions as to how they achieve their objectives, as in a campaign; but expeditions since the beginning have not been characterised by a similarity to the military campaign. They are more like, well, an expedition - one group, isolated, having to make their own way. 

But radios and sat phones and militias armed with AK47s change that somewhat. Scuttaro’s team, whilst not packing anything like the gear of Blashford Snell are there to make an IMAX film and have phone access to some influential diplomats and fixers.


To me this is a major difference between DIY and non DIY expeditioning. Non DIY uses every means available to achieve its objectives. DIY has no external back up. It is just the team in the field alone. 

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, proponents and opponents.

 But, the very presence of reassuring outside resources undermines leadership. When a team member can walk out they think about that rather than biting their tongue and shutting up. When they can phone home they phone home and people at home have no idea what you are going through.

 Climbing, which Scutaro has done a lot of - including climbing Everest several times, is, contrary to popular belief, a poor training ground for leadership. Think about climbers and climbing - it attracts highly competitive loners, not team players. Very similar to high level kayaking, where the thrill is one man against a VERY DEFINED route filled with obstacles. The sheer focus of a mountain climb, the fact that each climber has to be an expert in route finding, makes leadership almost unnecessary. I am not talking about commercial expeditions where some people are more equal than others by virtue of their wallets, I am talking classic alpine style mountaineering.


So you take a climber and a kayaker with incredible experience in their fields and you can also have neophytes in the everyday management of a typical expedition.

 An example is the way Chris Bonnington, who was on the 1968 expedition, had huge mountain leadership experience, and yet undermined at almost every turn, the leadership attempts of those above him in the chain of command. Scutaro’s number two, Gordon Brown, an obsessive and highly skilled kayaker, is similar - disagreeing over where to camp at night and picking fights with other non-American team members. Unlike Scutaro, Brown has little experience of dealing with Africans. He becomes obsessed by the way one guy is looking at him. We later discover Brown has recovered from brain cancer so his paranoia may be grounded in unstable brain chemistry. An excuse, then, but not something you want to have to deal with 500 km from the nearest town.


The real problem is that modern life, which means, broadly, American style comfortable living, allows us to be really sloppy about many things that are killers out in the wilderness. Bedouin, when on new ground, make a fetish of not arguing with a designated navigator about the ‘right way’. They know that even questioning the leader can upset his confidence. But big chested US style management makes few allowances for such subtle factors. The idea is that everyone is ‘allowed a say’.


Sorry, democracy parks its car at the Four Seasons on any real expedition; the classic modern way is to use fear tactics - i.e. safety rules become the new cover for being authoritarian. But actually it is more honest to be authoritarian. Especially if there is a single vehicle like a boat. You can only have one captain and everyone signs on with the knowledge that his word is the last word.

 In everyday life you can always phone a friend. And with a satphone you can do that too, but even a satphone can’t make the friend suddenly appear to whisk you away to dinner and a movie. Expeditions are all about managing cabin fever. Climbers manage it through just turning into themselves - when you’re out leading nothing else matters and when you’re in your tent you just switch off. Also climbing expeditions are short intense hits. They last days and weeks, not months.


It is ironic that some of the hardest rapids on the Blue Nile, hairy grade V stuff, are accomplished by a rafter who has so little experience he can’t even keep the boat straight on the flat bits. But it didn’t surprise me. Scutaro’s ‘top professional rafters’ leave early, in a way they are too highly qualified for the job. Maybe they should be leading their own expeditions. What you need are not skills but a sense of humour, a willingness to learn, enthusiasm and the ability to obey. Every trip is different. You can learn almost all you need on that trip for that trip if you have a good leader. Trips get very specialised and smart, fit people pick up that specialised knowledge quickly. I have always been surprised at how quickly neophytes pick really hard stuff when surrounded by people who are already skilled at it.


One of the great things about the book is the way it flashes back to accidents and experiences of Scuttaro that inform his current behaviour. This is really valuable as it allows you to spot a pattern in accidents which you can avoid.


First off there is the ‘celebrity’ expedition. Very experienced people like Scuttaro attract top people from allied but very different fields - what I call Landcruiser bruisers - people who have ‘seen the world’ and can talk the talk very convincingly, except they were always driving and someone else was doing the driving. These people, be they aid workers, army types, TV people are the kind of people who knock the water over into the fire. That can literally be a killer in some situations and one of the things I always look out for on a trip is how clumsy a person is. Then there are other ‘celebrity’ types - famous people or just plain successful people who haven’t paid their dues in blood and sweat and manage by their lifeskill and high status to get promoted to expeditions where they shouldn’t really be. I’m always very wary of anyone who describes what is upcoming in terms of a thrill - they are still stuck in rollercoaster mode, and rollercoasters never crash. I much prefer someone who speaks with a certain nostalgia for a wet sleeping bag and watching the sun rise.

 In two of the flashbacks in Scutaro and Bangs’s book, accidents happened because of celebrity presence. What on the surface looked like similar people was actually a very diverse bunch with differing experience levels.


The next lesson was the chain of minor mistakes that leads to the big accident. Rarely do accidents come like the wrath of the heavens. Mostly there is the chain - and any leader with sense learns how to spot the chain and stomp on it early. But that is hard when you have celebrities and when you have people who are top outdoor people in their own right. On one trip an expedition member smuggles a large handgun into Canada. That is mistake number one. The second is he shows it off to non-team members - a driver - who reports him. The third is that the maps are being held by someone inexperienced when the police arrive and search them. The fourth is the maps get lost. The fifth is that now it becomes hard to explain what is up ahead since there is no map to reference what the leader already knows. One boat takes the wrong route without scouting first and one of the inexperienced people excited by the thrill of it is killed.

 Never let anyone hold the maps except the leader. If he loses them then he doesn’t deserve to be a leader.


This is where martial arts training is better than outdoor training. In martial arts you are taught that make a mistake and you die. You are taught that mistake making is just not acceptable. We have, in over reacting to Victorian style teaching methods, actually become sloppy. And there are some people out there who make more mistakes than others - these are the folk you don’t want around in tight situation.


Usually accident chains start rolling because of a sense of being in a rush. You keep going to find a better camp spot and then it’s raining and dark and there is no where to camp and you start suffering from hyperthermia, which has happened to me. Which is why choosing the camp spot is so crucial and is the leader’s choice everytime.


The other situation where accidents happen is underestimation. Experienced people go for what they think is a day trip, they take no precautions and then they have an accident. This happens with Scuttaro when a doctor who is walking with him in Namibia breaks both his ankles. This account gives great food for thought. Everything is focussed on waiting for a helicopter to rescue the injured man - who is panicked and talking about gangrene within hours of his injury. You have to ask yourself what do you do if there is no helicopter? You have to ask yourself could I, like Doug Scott and Joe Simpson, drag myself out with broken legs bumping along behind me?


My own observations on leadership and the current ‘crisis’ in leadership are simple. We don’t have a leadership problem we have a ‘followership’ problem. When I take people out into the desert and I control the water, the transport, the navigation and the food - there is never a problem. Naturally I am not going to make things hard for myself by demanding different levels of comfort and not doing everything I ask others to do. But the essence is: we have a society where everyone can do their own thing and is encouraged from day one to think they are equal to everyone IN EVERYWAY.


An expedition is like a throwback to medieval times. There is one leader, or dictator, who is either benign or a tyrant. But an expedition is over all too soon. Our privilege is to be a day tripper not a permanent resident of the old days. 

So these people who have been brainwashed to believe they have a right to an equal say do not hesitate to consider first whether what they have to contribute is better put on hold, perhaps until tempers die down.