Last Friday, a man named Kevin was hiking Quandary Peak with his fiance. Just as he approached the summit of the 14,000 foot Colorado peak, he collapsed and died from a heart attack.
It took mountain rescue about eight hours to recover his body. To carry a man who weighs over 200 pounds from an elevation of 14,000 feet is a long, ardous task. But what struck me most about the day was the faces of the hikers coming down from the summit as my teammates and I made our way up with a wheeled litter-carrier. Quandary is a popular peak, and we probably passed fifty people. Every single one of them looked traumatized, and I realized they had all been involved with the death in some way. And every single one of them stopped to say thank you to us; I’ve never seen that happen before.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized the full extent of how many people had helped up there that day. The efforts and achievements of my team always astound me, but this time it was the efforts of the general public that stood out.
It started with several hikers who were near Kevin and his fiance when he died. One of them made a 911 call; others started CPR. A hiker with a walkie talkie alerted his friends higher up on the mountain, and one of them ran back up to the summit because he’d overheard another group’s conversation and knew there was a doctor up there. The doctor ran down the mountain and took control of the CPR. Other hikers ran to render assistance. Many of them stayed with Kevin’s fiance after he was pronounced dead, and the doctor even hiked all the way down with her.
As I pieced everything together later, I realized there had been an incredible display of teamwork from a large group of people who had never even met before. Patrick Lencioni, in Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, tells a story about a hospital where team dysfunction reigns in every department except the emergency room. The book’s protagonist, a consultant named Jude, talks to an administrator and asks her why. She responds that at every hospital she’s ever worked in, the ER team functioned smoothly and effectively. “No one with a heart and a brain would even think of bitching about departmental stuff while someone is lying here bleeding right in front of them. Emergencies tend to do that to people,” she says.
What happened on Quandary that day took Lencioni’s theory a step further. Not only do emergencies bring teams together to function more effectively, but they can bring complete strangers together to function like a team. The question is, how do you harness this power in your organization? You can’t create an emergency every day.
But you can create a sense of urgency and clarity about your team’s mission. Do your teammates all have the same sense of what they exist to accomplish? Do they feel that it’s vitally important–perhaps even a matter of life and death for the organization? That’s what true teamwork takes.
Ultimately, the teamwork on Quandary Peak didn’t save Kevin’s life. Paramedics conjectured that he probably died instantly. But if it had been possible to save him that day, the team that was up there might well have achieved it. And a lot of people went home that night thinking about what’s most important in life; I saw it in their faces as they passed me and said thank you to my team. The experience of working together to save a man’s life had affected them deeply, and they would never forget it.