To cut the rope? Lessons for leaders from Touching the Void.


So much is written about leadership & management.  And how it is about people, and relationships.

While that may be true, someone who occupies such a position is ultimately there to make decisions.  These are often made within difficult circumstances and these decisions will invariably affect those people and those relationships, in different ways and to different degrees.

After all, the leader is by virtue of their position tethered to not just one, but to the many.

For the leader, the decision to act this way or that is not always about making thebest decision.

Instead, it is often about making the least-worst decision.

At its most basic, it is about making decisions when we really would rather not.

Touching the Void

In what is now a famous story, two climbers got themselves into a bit of trouble in the Andes.  Descending rapidly to avoid a pressing storm, one climber, Joe, broke his leg.  The other climber, Simon, started to lower Joe down the mountain.  Joe howled in pain, but still Joe lowered him apace.  The alternative was to risk death for them both.

With progress slowed by the lowering, they were soon overwhelmed by the storm.  Visibility was severely reduced.  Still attached to the rope, Joe went over the edge of a cliff and was left hanging, unable to save himself.

Simon was at the other end, weathering the storm as best he could.  He was exhausted and straining under the tension of the rope.  He had no idea of the height of the cliff, or of Joe’s state of health or chances of survival.

Amid the exhaustion and tempest, there was only one certainty, albeit an uncomfortable one.  They would both soon be pulled off the mountain.

Both had the option to act, or to not act.

Joe, dangling below, and knowing from experience the perilous nature of the situation, could have cut himself loose to avoid pulling Simon over the edge.

Simon, above, not knowing how Joe would fare, and also knowing from experience the perilous nature of the situation, could cut the rope to avoid Joe pulling him over the edge.

Debate still rages about whether Simon’s choice was right, and the damage to their relationship was, at least for a time, palpable.

It is entirely reasonable for Joe to resent the decision; after all, amid his enduring pain and helplessness, he was betrayed and abandoned by the very person he depended on more than any other.  It is perhaps a greater act of courage to acknowledge Simon’s decision may well have saved them both.

Lessons for Leaders

While we may not often find ourselves tethered to someone dangling on the side of a mountain, as leaders we are morally – and often legally – tethered to all those for whom we have responsibility.  Not just one or two, but all of them.

And by virtue of our position, we are sometimes called upon to make decisions that we would rather not.

But make them we must; and sometimes that means cutting the rope.