5 Leadership Lessons I Learned in Search & Rescue

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I am the person they call when things go wrong… and in search and rescue (SAR), they often go very wrong.

My SAR story starts humbly. On the afternoon of August 29th, 2005, I slouched, half asleep in seat 29A, face mushed against the plastic barrier separating myself from the stratosphere. I was on the final leg of a 40-hour series of flights from Cameroon, West Africa, where I had served as a volunteer. As we began our descent to Dallas, I pried one eye open and saw something unmistakable out my window — the dark outer bands of a major storm. When we landed, we learned that this storm had a name. It was Katrina.

In the following days, I made a mad dash to volunteer, but having just returned from a country known to host an array of exotic tropical diseases I was rejected at every turn. With no way to help, I turned to the television and watched with horror as the government of the most powerful nation in the world let one of its greatest cities drown. I vowed that next time, come hell, high water — or both — I would make a difference.

Years later, I found our small corporate flight department’s helicopter underutilized, and remembered my feelings about Katrina. Today I occasionally drop out of a meeting, change my suit for a blaze orange uniform and climb into our company’s helicopter as the chief pilot for Texas Search and Rescue.

As a SAR pilot, I have saved lives and witnessed death and disaster. Those events have taught me a few leadership and life lessons that are difficult to learn in the boardroom. Here are a few of those observations.

1. Time is of the Essence

When a person goes missing, every hour that passes results in a declining chance that the person will be found alive. For example, according to “Lost Person Behavior” by Robert Koester, 95% of all Alzheimer’s patients located in the first 24 hours are found alive. Just over half are located alive after the first day.

You might imagine that when lives are on the line, no one would hesitate to act. In reality, law enforcement agencies suffer from the same institutional inertia that you might see in your business. The only difference between business and SAR is the penalty for hesitation. In business, it costs dollars. In SAR, it costs lives.

Sadly, I have seen the price of dawdling. In one case law enforcement allowed us to search a scene only after they conducted their own three-day search. My team found the missing man in seven minutes. He died from exposure before we reached him. Two weeks later we were called to locate a young woman who had been missing for three weeks. We found her disarticulated remains in 47 minutes.

Time is also of the essence in business. While my company, Formaspace, is known for being first to market in many areas, there are many times I failed to “seize the day.” One time I dithered over whether to hire a talented but expensive business development executive. She was quickly snapped up by another company.

Life as a SAR pilot offers frequent reminders that life is short. Today I hug my family at least twice every day, try my best to spend every minute on things that are important, and realize leaders must be biased in favor of timely action.

2. The Simplest Solution is Often Best

There is an often-overlooked SAR concept called “probability density.” Basically, the missing person is more likely to be found in a given size area near where they were last seen than an equal sized area located far away. Inexperienced SAR incident commanders sometimes ignore this concept, occasionally with hilarious results. A SAR team I know once found a missing child hiding under their command post.

The concept of probability density is valuable in business leadership too. Often, no one wants to acknowledge that a problem lies in their area so they invent flights of fancy to send leaders searching in all the wrong places.

Don’t risk finding a lost child under your own command post. Focus on simple, quick, and easy solutions before going after the long, complicated, and expensive ones.

3. Leverage Every Resource

Take a moment to imagine yourself unexpectedly thrust into a position of leadership after a section of your neighborhood is washed away by a flash flood. Power is down. Bridges are washed out. What would you do first? What resources would you call on? How would you communicate?

Perhaps in your imagination, you quickly grasped the stakes, made perfect decisions, and saved the day. That’s awesome. Unfortunately, in my experience leaders rarely act so boldly.

After years of flying SAR, I can predict the search timeline pretty well. Inexperienced incident commanders become paralyzed by fear, deny the scope of their needs, and hope for a magical solution. Later, under extraordinary pressure, they attempt some faulty and partial actions. After all else fails they finally capitulate and call experienced resources who coordinate a massive response. By the time the inexperienced leader takes decisive action it is often too late to bring someone’s loved one home alive.

Great leaders acknowledge reality quickly, rapidly build highly trained teams, and coordinate, integrate, and deploy all resources simultaneously for maximum effect. They leverage every resource from the start, rather than dabbling at the margins in the hope of success.

The same inability to acknowledge reality, indecision in the face of ambiguity, delayed or faulty action, and failure to marshal resources often infects the corporate world. Several times I had career-changing sales opportunities where I did not personally attend every important meeting or ensure every resource was made available to close the deal. There are many times where one additional insight or resource might have made the difference between failure and success.

I now know that if something is very important and the answer is ambiguous, I have to go all-in. I call every stakeholder. I pull together departments that don’t usually talk. If something is important, it’s worth involving everyone.

4. “Over” Communicate

SAR communication is rarely easy. Radios transmit on line of sight and make it very difficult to communicate effectively with ground teams that are often behind hills, down in muck, or under trees. In the helicopter, we spend a fair amount of time simply relaying messages from teams who don’t have line of sight to command and vice-versa.

This doesn’t work when command declines to take your calls. In one case where I saw this take place, the teams on the ground eventually packed up and headed home.

I too have been guilty of inadequate communication and speaking “over people’s heads.” There was a period of my life when I exulted in using complex words like “exulted.” I actually just did that. For real. I should have said I enjoyed using fancy words.

SAR taught me a leader has to free himself from daily details to adequately communicate vision, expectations, and basic information.

One helpful leadership technique is to pretend you are communicating with people from a different planet. Make communication simple, frequent, repetitive, and clear as humanly possible. Use small words and short sentences. One rule I was taught was to repeat the message until people make fun of you. That’s when you know they’ve got it.

5. Take Nothing for Granted

One thing one learns very quickly in SAR is to take nothing for granted.

Just because your team shows up does not mean they are motivated to work the search to conclusion. Tenacity breaks down quickly in the dead of night in driving rain. I served as a “ground pounder” searching fields and forest before I ever flew a helicopter on a mission. My tough-guy facade often wavered in the face of adverse weather and terrain. “Why am I doing this?” And “There’s no one out here,” are common SAR refrains.

I have learned it is critical to invest teams with advance knowledge about the bitter night ahead along with an expectation of ultimate success. When teams return cold, muddy, and weary after their first trip into the field, I try to be ready with a hot cup of coffee and gratitude for the dangerous and difficult job they undertake. I learned not to take my team for granted.

I have learned that just because law enforcement interviewed the family doesn’t mean they asked the right questions. I learned not to take the work quality of others for granted.

After a news helicopter nearly hit us during a search, I learned that a federal flight restriction won’t keep out lawbreakers eager for a scoop or simple entertainment at the expense of others. I learned not to take my team’s safety for granted.

Business is the same. As a leader in your business, it is easy to assume people are motivated, share your values and vision, and give leaders the best information they have. The truth is often not so simple. If a sale is important to you, make sure your team has uncovered every single rock between you and that deal. If you have an IT project, make sure every single requirement is documented, every single user has had input, and every user is trained to the point of total confidence.

Beyond these leadership lessons, I learned that death is best redeemed with an appreciation for life. I learned to love more actively than I could have previously imagined. I learned to live with humility in the face of the overwhelming power of nature. I have learned not to take life itself for granted. After one particularly difficult search involving the death of a child, I raced home to hold my own family.

I once saw a picture taken from Mars which shows the Earth as a single pixel. The picture paces the earth in a box that says “you are here.” We are here. In the vastness of our universe, the only difference we will ever make is those we love, those we touch directly, those we lay hands on, and those we can physically pull back from the brink of disaster. As corporate leaders, we have the ability to reject the craven politics and business climate of the day and lead people to a better future. Whether you are Fortune 100 CEO or an individual contributor looking for your next job, my challenge to you is to ask how you will make a difference to those around you.

Regardless of the path you choose, I suggest you take just one action today. I would encourage every reader — regardless of title — to call your family right now and tell them you love them. It is never bad timing, and for someone, somewhere, tomorrow will be too late.


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