Leaving adventurers on their own: A lack of leadership?

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Pablo Edronkin

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From time to time we hear about accidents that take place out in the wild, in which someone gets lost, hurt or while his companions continue about their journey, leaving the person in need alone. Why does it happen?

This phenomenon tends to appear - seemingly - around two different kinds of outdoor enthusiasts: those that seemingly know very little and those who seemingly know a lot and have a lot of experience. Indeed, novice outdoor people are exposed to mistakes and problems that others who have more experience would not fall into, like allowing a trekking group to split over a distance as its members follow a trail or course, based mostly on the different physical condition of ach one of them. Then, all over the day, as the group stops for a rest or reach specific points along the road, they have to wait since someone is still missing, hasn't arrived or appears to be downrightly lost.

However, the same problem - albeit for different reasons - tends to appear more than one would initially expect among a very different group: the experts. So, novices and experts tend to fall into the same traps, almost like if it were a sexual problem. How is that possible?

We will not find the answer by assuming that in the end, both groups have a serious lack of technical knowledge because that would only reasonable explain the behaviour of the novices. In the case of experts, the answer lies in the personality of some of them, and when those individuals get into a group, then the problem becomes one of leadership.

In any group two things can happen: a leader will appear, or it would not. If the personas that form part of the group are all of the same level of knowledge and experience, and unless someone demonstrates and innate and exceptional talent as a leader by his or her own right, leadership will be left vacant because none of those involved would be able to demonstrate to the others that he or she is in a better position to say what they have to do, and the others would not feel more confident about following the advice of that person vis--vis the others. However, in the case of groups formed by experts, lack of leadership due to the evenness of knowledge and experience is not related to this, but to a clash of egos: No "leader" will accept the leadership of another who is seen as an equal.

A good and practical example of this can be seen in the Argentine national football team in 2010: Just a few weeks before the beginning of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the team is in disarray. Its coach in the legendary Diego Armando Maradona, and among its athletes there are stars like Leonel Messi, now considered by some the best football player ever, even better than Maradona himself. It should also be noticed that Argentina has amassed the largest collection of victories and championships in the history of football (or soccer, as the people in the U.S. like to call it), because while Brazil has won the World Cup for the senior team more times than any other team, Argentina has won more prizes in more different categories. For example, the Argentine team is as of today the Olympic Gold medallist in football, while Brazil never achieved such a prize. So, from such a team anyone would expect it to win the next World Cup. However, statistically and historically speaking, this is the worst national team ever in Argentine history. Its results are the worst and oddly enough, individuals like Messi, while playing rather dully in the national team, see their performance soar - as well as their bank accounts - while playing for the club teams that they form part of. So, it is not the potential and the capability of its players what makes the difference, but the leaders, including the training assistants and especially the coach, Mr. Maradona.

He is an undisputed genius as a footballer but his personal history, oddly, condemns him now when he needs to become a true leader because he has not yet managed to surpass the purely formal stance of receiving the appointment as coach of the national football team, and so he remains unable to inspire his team. Maradona is a persona who rose from poverty purely thanks to his own merit and extraordinary talent, and became a celebrity on his own right with all the troubles that such a thing entails. Add to that a lack of a good formal education and the fact that he never received a diploma as team coach, something that is a requirement in almost every single club or team in the planet, including those found in Argentina. An exception seems to have been made in his case because his name simply sells, and sells a lot. However, facts speak for themselves and now is clear that commercial ventures or past talents do not make a leader, especially among those that compete with him in terms of profits - some of the athletes in the team earn even more than Maradona - and rival with him - or at least seem so - in fame and talent, like in the case of Mr. Messi.

So, what does Maradona have to differentiate himself from the people that he is supposed to lead: the answer is nothing. He is a peer among peers with just a formal distinction - a hat that says "coach" in big, friendly letters - that doesn't find in practical results any correlation. This is, as I said, a prime example of the lack of leadership that pervades some groups of experts.

Going back to an outdoor wilderness scenario, what happens when the same dynamic appears among a group of seasoned people? A clash of egos becomes almost inevitable and the group tends to dilute since each individual, being able to survive on its own and not in any superficially perceivably need to follow anybody tends to part his or her way. But if to this scenario some sort of trouble that goes beyond the technical prowess of each individual appears, like some sort of medical or physical incapacitation, be it partial or total, once the group is divided, the troubled person might be found in a very perilous situation.

Save notable exceptions like that of Saburo Sakai, a famous Japanese pilot who managed to return thousands of miles with his airplane and landed successfully after a bullet took one of his eyes off and passed thorough his brain on the skies over Guadalcanal, even the most seasoned and experienced person become as physically weak and feeble as the newest novice in many survival situations. So, even such a person, if abandon, could become a victim.

The question then is how a group of people would abandon someone in evident need of assistance when even common sense would tell anybody to help a little? The answer lies in egocentrism: There could be personal frictions against the person in need, jealousy, competence, gender or sexual issues, and those that should help could even think at the moment that they should not let "that moron" ruin their plans, which could include - for example - to climb the last metres until they reach the summit of a mountain that they always dreamed of, like Mount Everest or the Aconcagua. Under certain conditions, even experts could delude themselves and think that someone in trouble could be left on its own; common sense would tell us that we should not do that even within a city where help is plentiful, much less in an extreme environment, but it does happen.

Such a situation shows that such groups lack a clear chain of command, a leadership of any sort; they are not teams but just groups, and so, bringing together people - even experts - while it does produce a set or a group by definition, doesn't necessarily produce a team because a leader is what it takes to do that. A true leader, when confronted with a situation as described, would stop the team on its tracks to provide assistance to the person in need of it because leadership is always related to responsibility. Ironically, expert groups without clear leadership are potentially more dangerous to their members than the extreme activities that they like individually because, as we saw, they do not provide any sort of positive assistance under certain circumstances, and not even the kind of solidarity that common sense would otherwise prescribe.

What could happen to someone left behind in a scenario like this one?

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