The Hidden Power of What You Say and Don’t Say

“I will tolerate any dissension up there. My word will be final and binding, without exception. I will not accept any decision that you disagree with. I will discuss it afterward, but not while we are up on the hill.
These were the words of Rob Hall, Adventure Consultants’ mountain guide. He was trying to descend from Everest’s summit when he was caught in a snowstorm and tragically lost his life. He wasn’t the only one to die.
His team lost three members, along with Scott Fischer, Mountain Madness’ lead guide, in an incident that was captured in mountaineering literature as well as film and dubbed the ’96 Everest disaster’.
One guide stated that a specific cause of this catastrophe was ‘to promote an understanding of all things that is not possible to be proven by politicians, Gods, or drunks’.
There were many contributing factors. One thing that was not explored, but could be of great value to future expeditions, as well as complex corporates and organisations in a wider context, is the use language.
David Marquet, a former US Navy submarine captain, is the author of the international bestseller Turn the Ship Around. He recently published a second book entitled Leadership is Language, the Hidden Power of What You Say and What you Don’t. This book examines the language used by the crew of El Faro, a cargo ship that sank in the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, on October 1, 2015. All 33 people aboard were killed.
There are striking parallels to the 1996 Everest disaster. Marquet’s observations about the use of language suggest that more consideration of our words spoken and unspoken might help to prevent disaster in the mountains. This would also be relevant to the running of organisations around the world and the management of projects, especially when it comes down to speaking truth to power or addressing issues that leaders might be reluctant to address.
Rob Hall was a much more experienced climber than his clients and held a position as the expedition’s leader.
He had accompanied 39 clients to the summit. He would have seen firsthand, many times, the symptoms of summit fever. This is a condition that occurs when climbers are so ambitious that rationality is abandoned. Emotions rule and climbers move inexorably toward the summit, often without regard for the cost to others and themselves.
It is actually a particular example of a larger cognitive bias known as the “sunk cost effect”, which is the tendency for people not to abandon a course of action they have already taken substantial investments in. I’ve made it this far, I re-mortgaged my house, and I’m not giving in now.
Rob Hall devised the universally accepted “one o’clock rule” to avoid self-inflicted injury. It states that climbers must reach summit by 1.00pm to 2.00pm at most. If not, they must turn around and return to high camp to ensure safe return to high camp before oxygen bottles run dry.
Hall’s clear declaration of authority, “I will tolerate any dissension up there …’,” would have served to warn anyone who might disagree with him if they were to turn around before the summit. It also served to ensure that his clients remained passive, unfortunately.
The message was that Hall was the one who thought, not they, and discouraged them raising concerns when this was, as it turned, perfectly appropriate.
Unfortunately, Hall’s assertion of authority did not include the unpleasant truth that he could also be inflicted by summit fever, even if he was speaking on behalf of another person.
Hall assisted Doug Hansen, his client, with the last few fes around 4.00pm.