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HBS Case Review: Mt. Everest Case Study

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The case of Mt. Everest focuses on two commercial expeditions, Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, and the tragic event on May 10, 1996. These two commercial expeditions were lead by Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, and were consisted of 20 members. Both leaders were experienced climbers, but due to several factors, the expedition resulted into five deaths including Hall and Fischer. The event has thought managers to evaluate the importance of leadership together with its internal and external factors that managers should consider to survive in the high risk business world.

Case Study Questions
1) Why did this tragedy occur and what are the root causes of this disaster?

The Mt. Everest tragedy occurred because of problems resulting from the relationship of cognitive bias, psychological safety, and complex system theory together with the specific leadership styles and team beliefs that were present with the people involved.

Cognitive Biases
Cognitive bias is “a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations, which may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality” (Wikipedia). In the case of Mt. Everest, irrationality was present throughout the members, including the leaders. For instance, Hansen’s statement “I’ve put too much of myself into this mountain to quit now, without giving it everything I’ve got” (Roberto and Carioggia, p.9) and Weather’s insistent in continuing to climb the mountain in spite of his one eye being completely blurred are both evidence of perceptual distortion. Another example is the knowledge of both Fischer and Hall regarding the strict “Two O’clock Rule” but both failed to implement it, showing inaccurate judgment. Finally, illogical interpretation of recent good weather on the mountain as something that will continue was irrational. These cognitive biases resulted in poor judgment and contributed to the failure of the team.

Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (JSTOR). The team members of the Mt. Everest showed lack of psychological safety throughout the members. Boukreeve from the Mountain Madness team showed this weakness with his concerns regarding his team’s overall level of readiness. Krakauer’s lack of trust towards his members was also evident with his statement, “For the most part I attributed my growing unease to the fact that I’d never climbed as a member of such a large group—a group of complete strangers, no less” (Roberto and Carioggia, p.5). The absence of psychological safety failed the teams to learn from each other, which weakened their performance and prevented them to create good relationship as a team.

Complex System Theory
The tragedy of Mt. Everest is not a result of one single mistake, but rather a result of multiple complex failures. This complexity is almost like a chain reaction that worsens the situation. Using Hall’s team as an example, problems started appearing before the team even started their expedition. First, the problem with the Russian boarder customs delayed the oxygen delivery. Second, a charter plane stalled the high-altitude tent delivery. Then the situation was worsened with the bad weather and conflict with the Nepali’s demand for a large wage increase. Another issue was the mistaken assumption by both Hall and Fischer of another team, the Montenegrin team, installing enough rope for the entire path to the summit. This was also worsened with the leadership style of Hall insisting that all clients should wait for the guides before proceeding. This safety procedure also slowed the team’s progression. All these events contributed to one large crisis that deteriorated as the team tried to reach the summit.

Cognitive Bias, Psychological Safety, and Complex Theory
Putting all three problems together would suggest the root behind the Mt. Everest’s tragedy. Lack of psychological safety within the team members failed to fix cognitive bias of irrationality. If members developed trust within the team, cognitive bias could have been prevented or at least minimized. The truth that climbers might make irrational decisions and find it hard to turn back when they are so closed to the summit was obvious, but teammates seeing this problem did not speak up since they did not feel that their thoughts were welcome and felt uneasy. More cognitive biases could also been prevented to lessen the complex system of the expedition. Since climbing Mt. Everest is already a high risk venture, any additional problems such as irrational decisions can cause a crisis. Using the early sign of issues with Hall’s team’s progress, it was obvious that the probability of failing the expedition was high before the team even started. Hall could have used the issues as a sign of the complex systems that exist, and could have used this knowledge to prevent any irrational decisions. The complex systems and the lack of psychological safety also contributed to the tragedy. The team members failed to communicate and trust each other, which then added more problems to the complex systems. For instance, Boukreev’s could have spoken up to his team leader, Fischer, about his concerns regarding his team members lacking experience to begin with. By speaking up, he could have prevented more chain reaction due to lack of communications and feedback within the team.

2) What is your evaluation of Scott Fisher and Rob Hall as leaders? Did they make poor decisions and why?

Hall and Fischer both showed to be strong leaders. With this being said they both failed to set a good role model for their followers and failed to balance their position and the situation well. Both leaders hold an extremely high confidence that prevented them from making the best decisions and prevented them to receive feedbacks from their followers.

Hall showed his confidence by bragging that “he could get almost any reasonably fit person to the summit” (Roberto and Carioggia, p.6). He was also firm that his directions to his followers should be treated as an “absolute law”, which then prevented his followers to offer their knowledge and views. Openness was restricted due to Hall’s strong control towards his followers. This, in turn, stopped his followers from speaking up, even on the simplest situations. Krakauer mentioned that his “ability to discern the obvious was exacerbated to some degree by the guide-client protocol” (p.12) where clients should always follow their guide’s decisions. Hall failed to use his position to encourage openness and good leader-follower communications within his team.

Fischer was 100 percent sure that he will be coming back and will be making all the right choices. This also shows extreme confidence and autocratic leadership, which prevented his followers from giving feedbacks and offering their expertise. For instance, Jangbu did not say anything “out of respect to his authority” (p.11) and continued to tow Pittman on a short-rope for nearly six hours and carried Pittman’s satellite phone for hours. This caused Jangbu to be exhausted and ill on summit day and prevented him to do his duty as the lead Sherpa. Fischer’s autocratic leadership continued on to the rest of the team members as shown with Beidleman’s behavior regarding the chain of command specifying that Boukreev is higher than him and must be followed regardless of the situations. Even during the worst when Fischer’s health was obviously deteriorating, nobody discussed the issue. Beside for the feedback restrictions, Fischer was also too confident to admit that the situation is not permitting him to be a leader at that point. He failed to ask for somebody to take over and admit that his leadership and the situation can no longer be balanced by himself.

3) What are the lessons that can be learned from this case for general managers in business enterprises?

The biggest lesson that managers in business enterprises can learn from Mt. Everest is to learn from mistakes but to also recognize other failures that contributed to the mistakes. The tragedy has certainly showed leadership failure, but this failure is not the only cause. Managers should recognize that cognitive biases, team beliefs, psychological safety, and complex systems also contributed to the result of the event. They are not individually an explanation of why the tragedy happened, but rather their interrelation that resulted in a disaster. It might be easier to point finger to one specific source of failure, but it would also be unreasonable.

Business managers should be able to identify the overall organizational failure resulting from internal and external factors. In the Mt. Everest case, the internal is the leadership and the team beliefs, while the external is the environment and unforeseen crisis. The tragedy should remind managers and leaders that the business world is not a simple organization that can be controlled with one hand, but rather a connection of multiple forces that is sometimes out of our ability to handle. Understanding and learning from the mistakes can minimize those multiple forces from becoming a disaster.

The unfortunate events at Mt. Everest in 1996 has thought managers the importance of leadership together with cognitive biases, team beliefs, psychological safety, and complex systems that managers should consider to survive in the high risk business world. Many people have analyzed that Hall and Fischer were the sole cause of the tragedy, but to point finger to one portion of the ever growing organizational system would be unfair. As stated by Krakauer’s note, “mistakes may have been made, but they emphasized that climbing Everest will always be a risky and dangerous endeavor” (Roberto and Carioggia, p.14). Many factors have contributed to an already risky goal. Only those who see the relationship between the factors and the goal can take home good lessons from such a heartbreaking event.

My recommendation is to learn from the result of Mt. Everest’s expedition and to continue to identify organizational factors that should be considered when making managerial decisions. I agree with Boukreev that “To cite a specific cause would be to promote an omniscience that only gods, drunks, politicians, and dramatic writers can claim” (p.14). We live in a real world where we are surrounded by many aspects of life that we can and/or cannot control. To blame one small part of this real world as the reason to a certain mistake will be an exaggeration. On the other hand, to blame all and not realize the connections is incomplete. To value those five lives that were lost, we should learn that even with only 22 climbers on May 10, 1996, it was already extremely hard managing the psychological, social, and situational aspects of the events. Try applying that to the whole world with billions of people to consider and an endless possibility of the unexpected. To top it all off, try finding a sole source and say with an absolute certainty that it is the root of all it all: now that is just irresponsible.

Work Cited

JSTOR. 6 October 2012.
Lussier R., and Achua C. Leadership: Theory, Application, & Skill Development. 5th ed. South-Western Cengage Learning, Inc, 2010. Roberto M., and Carioggia G. Mount Everest—1996. 5 October 2012 Wikipedia. 6 October 2012.

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