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The many people you will read about in this book placed their lives at genuine risk-some as part of living their own exciting lives and some specifically for the purpose of researching this book. The lessons you learn from their sojourns to the edge of life and death will forever change the way you lead.

This book uncovers new leadership lessons from firsthand experience in dangerous places. I say "new" because the principles described in this book haven’t been put forth in other books you might have read about leadership. That’s because this book gets at leadership as it is practiced at a peak of intensity: by watching leaders in circumstances where lives can be lost.

In situations where followers perceive their lives are threatened, leadership literally defines the promise of future life, and those at risk desperately seek capable leaders. Such high-risk situations are ideal settings to seek and find great leaders, assess how they might differ from other leaders, and glean invaluable insights for extraordinary leadership in our everyday lives. This book is a way for you to gain those novel insights without having to put your own life at risk.

For the past three years, I have committed myself to a greater understanding of authentic leadership in circumstances where the injury or death of followers must be actively avoided. I collected experience at extreme sport coaching, leadership in combat, and the ways that people respond to death. I originally set out to learn about leaders in dangerous settings because I thought I was going to find a form of leadership that would apply only to military, police, and firefighting-in other words, critical response organizations. It turns out that I discovered much more. I discovered that the unique leadership principles that emerge in life-or-death settings offer profound lessons for leadership in all settings.

I, and others who have worked with me, assumed risk firsthand in places that few people go and from where even fewer return. We refer to such places as in extremis settings, and the leadership found there as in extremis leadership. The leadership insights we’ve uncovered are bold, unmistakable, and novel; they are gems of understanding for professional life savers and life takers. Yet we never found a leadership lesson or principle in evidence in dangerous settings that didn’t also inform or apply to leading in business or everyday life.

The opposite, however, was definitely true: there is much that poses as leadership in business, politics, and everyday life that is not really leadership, fails immediately when applied in dangerous settings, and, ironically, often doesn’t work very well in routine settings either. What you learn from this book will help you cut through faddish, bogus leadership approaches and make you better at leading and being led.

You’re About to Take an Exciting Ride

There are many reasons you should read about, experience, and think through in extremis leadership, and first among them is that in extremis leadership is quite exciting. Enjoy the ride. Whether the leaders you’ll read about have conquering a mountain or an enemy battalion as their goal, whether the followers are at 15,000 feet in a free-fall at 120 miles per hour or poised to ram the door of an inner-city crack house, in extremis leadership promises high-risk, high-payoff outcomes. This book takes you to a world where adrenaline courses through the veins of people who live extraordinary lives and do extraordinary things. You’re about to enter a world of extreme settings where "average Joe" (and even "above-average Joe") is only a spectator.

The more that I looked at leaders in dangerous places, the clearer it became that these leaders, in doing their work, could teach much about the more routine challenges of organizations, and even of political leadership. For example, in the context of the 2004 presidential election, an editorial in the New York Times cited the value of developing leadership characteristics under the threat of death: "People need to feel that the President is not going to be fazed by life-and-death decisions. And the only way you can demonstrate that is by showing that you’ve made some."1

A tour through in extremis leadership also gives a new look at public servants to whom we all owe so much. The vast majority of in extremis leaders spend their lives protecting ours, and we need to know more about the nature of their bravery and willingness to sacrifice their own safety. When danger threatens in our towns and cities, we have neither the time nor the resources to put the problem up for contract bid. Instead, a fire department lieutenant leads peers into a burning home, or a special-tactics police sergeant positions his team outside a bank full of hostages. Across the world, in cities now embroiled with anarchy or worse, military leaders thunder down nameless streets with their platoons and companies, barking orders that carry the promise of survival and victory for some and most certainly death and defeat for others. By and large, neither the leaders nor their followers who risk their lives in the public service are paid more than an average wage. All citizens should come to understand such a remarkable phenomenon.

And if you happen to be in public service, you may find that this book reads like a textbook for how to train and act in dangerous settings-whether they are common to your work or as rare as an instance of workplace violence.

The real value to most readers, however, will be in their role as organizational citizens-filling roles in teams and groups that cocoon us in our everyday lives. Most of us won’t be a hero on the side of a mountain-but maybe we can be ordinary heroes and lead better in our families, workplaces, and communities. All of the information presented here offers information that can be applied to any organizational context, and to make it even easier to consider those lessons, I’ve added indicators along the way in sections labeled "Why This Is Important for All Leaders." In addition, I’ve concluded each chapter with a summing up of the key in extremis leadership lessons presented in that chapter. Both features are intended to be helpful guides.

Learning from In Extremis Leaders: Retracing Pathways in the Shadow of Death

The pathways you’ll take in this book are actual experiences. Several individuals have helped with the effort to understand in extremis leadership, including at least eight who deployed to combat zones for research purposes. Most of the work, however, I had to do myself, either because of the inherent danger of the setting or because of my ability to take advantage of circumstances that developed because of my military credentials or abilities developed as a skydiving instructor. Thus, I learned a lot about in extremis leadership by watching, and sometimes living, in extremis contexts.

I define in extremis leadership as giving purpose, motivation, and direction to people when there is imminent physical danger and where followers believe that leader behavior will influence their physical well-being or survival. In extremis leadership is not a leadership theory. It is an approach that views leader and follower behaviors under a specific set of circumstances-contexts where outcomes mean more than mere success or failure, pride or embarrassment. Outcomes in in extremis settings are instead characterized in terms of hurt or healthy, dead or alive.

Defined in this way, in extremis leadership differs from the popular concept of crisis leadership. In crisis leadership, the focus is on how leaders react when thrust unexpectedly into an extreme challenge, disaster, or circumstance. It is based largely on military history vignettes and corporate case studies that seem to support recommendations for leaders to communicate better, care more, and try to stay calm in the face of calamity. In contrast, in extremis leaders routinely and willingly place themselves in circumstances of extreme danger or threat and, more important, lead others in such circumstances as well. These leaders are professional and self-selected; crisis leaders are not. Wouldn’t you rather learn from pros, especially when the stakes are high?

This is a reality book. Here is how I learned, and you can learn, from the reality lived by professional, self-selected, in extremis leaders:

• Two cadets, a sergeant, and I went as participant-observers to the Special Operations Command Military Freefall School in Yuma, Arizona, to conduct observation of in extremis leaders participating in high-risk military training. We successfully completed all aspects of the course, including nighttime group free-fall jumps with oxygen and more than a hundred pounds of equipment.

• One research associate and I conducted more than 120 in-depth interviews across a range of both leaders and followers. Among the leaders (and many of them are listed by name in the Conclusion), we interviewed SWAT team chiefs from the New York City and San Francisco offices of the FBI.

• We interviewed mountain climbing guides from three states, including elite guides from the highly respected Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Established in 1926, the school is touted by Outside magazine as having some of the best and most experienced mountain guides in the world.

• We interviewed leaders of unique, dangerous teams: for example, a leader of jungle photographic expeditions to India, unarmed and in search of tigers, and a leader of large-formation skydiving events to link hundreds of people together in 120-mph free-fall.

• I studied the U.S. Military Academy’s national champion parachute team. The thirty-member coeducational team operates as a three-year, high-risk leader development laboratory. In the past six years, it has produced the academy’s upper-tier student leaders, including four pinnacle cadet first captains in command of the Corps of Cadets and, equally remarkably, two Rhodes Scholars. As a comparison, we completed interviews with team leaders of conventional men’s and women’s college sports teams like football, soft-ball, wrestling, swimming, and rugby.

• We talked to special operations soldiers, both live and over online chat or satellite telephone.

• And we interviewed the first armored cavalry commander to roll his tanks into the burning streets of Baghdad the day the United States invaded the city in April 2003.

Quotations from these interviews and detailed case studies of some of these exemplary people are featured in every chapter.

Our sample of leaders was rich and diverse and 100 percent in extremis. But to understand leadership, the analysis must go beyond the leaders and the context. The followers also hold an important viewpoint that too often is overlooked. So to talk to followers, three colleagues and I went to war. We talked to thirty-six Iraqi prisoners of war, interviewed by a translator in field settings in Um Qasr, Iraq, during the initial hostilities there in April 2003, and more than fifty U.S. soldier and Marine interviews done in breaks from the fighting on the outskirts of al Hillah and Baghdad. In these one-hour, in-depth interviews conducted prior to President Bush’s May 1, 2003, announcement of the end of major combat operations, soldiers spoke openly of the strengths and failings of their leaders.

The greatest challenge in getting to know these incredible leaders and followers has been remaining true to the definition of in extremis leader: we had to dodge administrators who perhaps once led exciting lives but were no longer routinely in dangerous settings. We had to avoid the temptation of interviewing rear-echelon military leaders or followers, even when they were in Iraq during active combat operations. Every soldier and Marine we interviewed had had a peer killed in his or her unit in the past thirty days. We ensured that our mountain guides took clients on challenging climbs, that they were not simply climbing-school staff working with inexperienced beginners. This book taps a pure sample of truly unique individuals.

An Overview of the Lessons Ahead

In order for the unique character of in extremis leadership to take hold in everyday life, it has to be recognizable. In Chapter One, I describe the key characteristics of in extremis leaders. These characteristics paint colorful, sometimes exciting individual portraits. Although the totality of the work over the past few years points to these characteristics, some of the most compelling evidence comes from the words and deeds of followers who accompanied the leaders into combat or other in extremis settings. This opening chapter features follower comments, along with comments from leaders themselves, to complete the characterization of in extremis leadership.

With the basic characteristics of in extremis leaders established, Chapter Two focuses on the ways that in extremis leadership applies directly to the conduct of business and leadership in everyday life. To be honest, I never intended this work to be broadly applicable; I simply wanted to understand leaders who live and work in dangerous settings so that I could do a better job as chair of the Military Academy’s leadership, psychology, and management programs. But in that role, I routinely talk to executives and the visiting public. I took the time to describe the in extremis work to these visitors in detail. Their reactions were powerfully illuminating: these diverse leaders drew the parallels for me, and they insisted that the lessons from the in extremis work were of value to them personally and professionally. Thus, Chapter Two is my interpretation of many comments and critiques provided by executives and leader developers from companies like GE, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Anheuser-Busch, and others who visited West Point, discussed in extremis leadership with me, and taught me through our dialogues.

Once it is established that in extremis leaders are useful people, it is valuable to discuss how to create them. Chapter Three discusses how to develop such characteristics in others. The chapter may be useful in curriculum established for public service jobs such as first-responder training and police, fire, and military training applications. Far from a cookie-cutter training solution, the chapter challenges trainers to think about how to apply in extremis developmental techniques in their own work. Such an approach also enables the chapter to be of value to academic or business leaders who want to review their leader development programs from a perspective never before articulated in the leadership literature.

The challenges of dangerous environments are not simply physical; they are psychological and emotional as well. Chapter Four addresses how emotions operate under conditions of high physical threat, and it debunks the myth that controlling emotions is necessary in order to lead in dangerous settings. Fear is the emotion featured prominently in the chapter. It also serves as a proxy for a variety of feelings experienced when lives are at risk.

Sadly, our worst fears are sometimes realized. In extremis settings always encompass the risk of grave physical injury or death. Chapter Five describes how in extremis leaders cope with the tragedy of death in the organization-an all-too-frequent occurrence in public service, and especially in the Army and Marine Corps, although all of us, sooner or later, will find ourselves in an organization that has to face the death of a respected or beloved member. Lessons learned from in extremis leaders can help all of us cope with the tragic inevitability of death.

In teaching leadership, it is often worthwhile to develop a complex example or case study to show some of the principles in action. Chapter Six describes a case of developing teams using dangerous contexts, and it draws on the specific practices used to develop young people on a collegiate skydiving team. When teams practice, learn, and bond in dangerous environments, levels of leader development occur that are remarkable when contrasted with development under routine conditions. The purpose of the chapter is not merely to show how amazing leaders emerge from dangerous circumstances-though they in fact do. Instead, the real purpose is to provide a detailed description of the ways in which high-risk teams are built, so that other team builders, whether challenged with danger or not, can draw on these same techniques.

My own developmental path, and this book is a way point, has everything to do with the people who developed me along the way. Most of my thinking about in extremis leadership has been heavily influenced by mentors, colleagues, acquaintances, and of course the subjects of the interviews and activities that led to the book. It is therefore important that you understand a bit more about these people beyond my merely acknowledging them. The Conclusion is a series of brief biographies about the in extremis leaders and followers who influenced the development of the concept beyond mere anecdotal observations. Learn from these people as I have. Many have sacrificed their lives or their livelihoods by leading in dangerous contexts. Their legacy continues to pay dividends when we learn from their experiences. Honor their commitment and sacrifices by serving the people around you, and leading as if your life depended on it.

Finally, the Resource at the end of the book articulates the unique physical demands of dangerous settings. It describes the danger of incapacitating injuries and explores how in extremis leaders can exercise in ways that reduce the likelihood that they will be incapacitated in the face of danger. The parallel for leaders in business and other less threatening settings is that there is tremendous cost-financial, interpersonal, managerial-when a leader is struck by a debilitating injury. This useful resource explains how all of us can benefit from activities that don’t simply make us physically fit but that prevent injury. Employers who pay worker compensation may find it particularly worthwhile.

How This Book Can Help All Leaders

I have been told by former military leaders who are now leadership consultants that although the context may change, leadership is leadership. From their perspective, based largely on cold war experience, there is nothing particularly special about the threat of death in the context of leading. The conventional wisdom is that good peacetime leaders also make good wartime leaders. This perception is understandable, because it is the mission of the military services to train and prepare ordinary people in peacetime to fight and win our nation’s wars. I know of no one, however, who has systematically investigated the assumption that leadership is leadership or has tried to characterize leadership in life-threatening circumstances. In addition, even if no unique patterns were to emerge from the study of in extremis leadership, the stakes are simply too high not to question and examine assumptions.

A universal comment from experienced warriors is that it is quite difficult, perhaps impossible, to describe the effect of being in a war to those who have not experienced it. War is serious business, and those who have engaged in the grisly matter of killing, even killing for politically, socially, or morally justified reasons, are usually quite hesitant to be forthcoming and descriptive. It’s traumatic to kill, and certainly traumatic to be the object of lethal attack. Veterans solemnly admonish, "You have to have been there to know what it was like," and then fall silent.

The veil is lifted, however, by a twenty-year-old college student bubbling with excitement over her first solo free-fall with a parachute or by a mountain climber freshly returned from the summit of Everest or K2. People whose experiences are unique, exciting, and dangerous also often warn, "You have to have been there to know what it was like," but unlike the more silent and reserved combat veterans, these survivors gush for hours about the excitement and challenges that they overcame.

Their candor represents a window of opportunity for students of leadership. All leaders can learn from those who lead or work in an array of life-threatening contexts.

Thomas A. Kolditz
West Point, New York
March 2007


  © Leadership in Focus Modified by LeaF 2009

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