This case is about British Army adventurous training exercise to Low’s Gully in Borneo, Malaysia. The exercise was intended to build leadership skills and character in 10 volunteer soldiers. The task was to scale down a dangerous and untraversed gully, a 10 mile long chasm that served as drain for rainwater, using abseiling technique and then follow the river out of the jungle. This team was led by two British officers who recruited five soldiers from units in Great Britain and three Chinese soldiers stationed in the British Army’s Hong Kong Military Service Corps.
The eight soldiers knew little or nothing about each other. In the face of adversity during the exercise, the participants separated into sub teams despite being individually trained by the army to work well with other soldiers and to follow the ‘golden rule for such expeditions – never split up. ” (Connaughton 1996). Participants easily could have lost their lives when the planned ten day exercise ended up lasting up to five weeks. Half of the group members actually accomplished the initial objective and the other half had to be rescued by a helicopter. All of them were in ill health and famished and some badly injured.
The catastrophic failure also left them mentally scarred and two of them actually quit the army disillusioned or disgraced. Even though attempting to traverse an uncharted and hostile territory is bound to test any team dynamics, it was the leadership failures of Lt. Col Neil and Major Foster that amplified the adversity that faced the team. There were several misjudgments on the part of these two individuals that eroded the trust between the team members. Neil miscalculated the amount of rope required for abseils and was the major reason why the team split, leaving no avenue to regroup in case of adversity.
Secondly, he purchased no walkie talkies in an effort to minimize the budget that resulted in lack of communication between the two split parties. Primary tools of communication such as maps, star charts and radio beacons to broadcast locations were also ignored. Another misjudgment on Neil’s part was to go ahead with the mission in the rainy season despite being warned by locals of the unpredictable weather and increased difficulty of scaling down the gully. Each misjudgment reflected the leader’s overconfidence in his judgment – ‘a cognitive bias’ called in literary circles that distorts managerial decision.
Neil admits of being overambitious in his diary while he lay in the cave helpless awaiting rescue. As Mann, one of the soldiers put it, “these are two officers on their last great hurrah”. As these mistakes became evident on the course of the mission, the soldiers trust grew into mistrust of the leader’s abilities and judgments and finally led to a permanent group fracture. This erosion of trust was however gradual. There was a definite initial trust in the team due to communal common grounds. All the members were from the same organization i. e army and had gone through similar training and ethos.
They also placed trust in the leader and his superior rock climbing certification and willing followed his instruction in the beginning. It was at a personal level that common ground failed to establish. The team realized early in the start the lack of benevolence on the leader’s part. When the officers ignored warnings from the locals about the harsh weather conditions, the soldiers felt it as inadequate concern for the well being of the rest of the team. Then integrity based doubts began to emerge when the team found out that the leaders were carrying rucksacks lighter than them.
They also felt they had been misinformed about the actual difficulty of the task at the time of recruiting. When the Chinese soldiers were expressed their safety concerns, they were threatened rather than being motivated. Hence the initial communal trust failed to hold due to lack of lack of benevolence and integrity from the leaders. The trust turned transitioned into trust with apprehension but even the soldiers continued to follow the leader’s orders refraining from all out disobedience. The final breakdown in communication and permanent and physical split took place when the adversity of the course was at its peak.
The group of 10 was split between the most physically fit and the others. Others included both the leaders. Physically fit were told to scale down the gully first and act as reconnaissance party for the others. After abseiling for several days till they reached a point of no return, Corporal Mayfield reported back to the Neil to make him aware of the situation. Neil did not heed to this warning once again and told the ‘recce’ party to go ahead and wait at the bottom. The ‘recce’ party proceeded hesitantly and waited for them at the bottom severely exhausted.
When they ran out of rations they finally proceeded out of the woods leaving the group permanently split. The lack of proper communication was at fault when Neil failed to realize the gravity of the situation. As a leader in place of Col Neil, I would have avoided being overambitious and would have carefully assessed the difficulty of the exercise in great detail. Primarily because I was in charge of the safety of my team members and it was my responsibility to prepare them of the task which lay ahead. I would have paid special consideration to the advice of the locals who knew more about the terrain we are about to tread.
The amount of rope needed for abseiling and the suitable weather for the task would have had my extreme focus. There will be no compromise on integrity on my part and would never fake my climbing certification to gain acceptance from the rest of the team. In terms of communication, I would have gathered equipment which let all members keep in touch in times of adversity. Radio beacon, walkie talkies and maps are important tools to avoid communication failure and a potential group split and I would make sure to accompany them.
Also in order keep communication two ways with my junior team members I would have made sure Major Foster acted as my conduit to team members of my orders and let me know of any apprehensions my soldiers had. This is crucial to repair trust trepidation at its beginning and avoid it to lead to distrust. The information is easier to trickle down but there should be a mechanism where the information has to trickle up as well. This is the reason, as a leader, it is important to heed to junior team member’s assessment of ground and treat them as eyes and ears.
Even though ‘recce’ party was established to do that, Neil never realized the gravity of the situation when abseiling the 1 mile gully. The possibility of a permanent split between the team at the gully would be inacceptable to me. Even though I think it is a wise idea to create subgroups with a team to achieve more efficiency, I have would make sure the subgroups consisted of members with complementary skills instead of similar ones. Separating the most physically fit members with the rest was fatal in the end and that is the reason why they accomplished and the weaker members failed.