Eighteen hours is all you have. That is, if you’re climbing Mt. Everest.
Climbers begin their ascent from basecamp, conveniently located at 26,000 feet above sea level, in the ungodly hour of 2:00 AM. They climb through the night and early morning, reaching the summit about mid-day. Then they scramble back down before sunset to the relative safety of basecamp.
Climbing expeditions on Mt. Everest follow this strict policy: the two o’clock rule. The two o’clock rule states that any climber who’s not reached the summit by two o’clock in the afternoon abandons their ascent and returns to basecamp immediately. No exceptions.
The reason for the two o’clock rule is simple. Continued climbing after this time poses grave risk to climbers and their guides, causing both to descend from the world’s tallest mountain in total darkness.
But on May 10, 1996 that rule was not followed, and one of the deadliest tragedies ever on Everest occurred as a result.
Best-selling author John Krakauer was on this trip and barely escaped with his life. Five climbers, including the leaders of the expedition, perished as they descended in darkness—well past midnight—while a ferocious blizzard enveloped the peak.
The Absence of Dissent
Why did this happen? The absence of dissent.
Krakauer observed on the trip a relationship between climbers and their guides of passive dependency. The leaders of the expedition, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, presented themselves as invincible experts. Climbers were asked to be their unquestioning followers. Even as Fischer’s physical condition deteriorated badly, struggling to put one foot in front of the other, no one talked about it or suggested an alternative course of action.
“Unfortunately, the experience of these teams on the slopes of Everest mirrors the group dynamic within many executive suites and corporate boardrooms around the world,” Michael Roberto writes in Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer.
“The factors suppressing debate and dissent within these expeditions also affect managers as they make business decisions,” Roberto concludes. “Inexperienced individuals find themselves demonstrating excessive deference to those with apparent expertise in the subject at hand. Plenty of teams lack the atmosphere of mutual trust and respect that facilitates and encourages candid dialogue.”
Advice to Leaders and Their Followers
Strong, driven, intense leaders do this unintentionally, but do it nevertheless. They wrap themselves in an aura of competence that makes asking them a question, or pushing back in any way, tantamount to treason.
So leaders, I urge you, follow the advice of the title of this article: don’t take yes for an answer. Poke, prod, and even cajole, until you’ve uncovered the real opinions of the people you lead. Or, as Patrick Lencioni describes it, “mine for conflict.” It’s how you uncover the truth.
And followers, don’t conspire with this dysfunction by refusing to accept the responsibility of questioning authority. Not because your leaders are evil villains out to the destroy the world (Instances of these are, thankfully, very rare), but because your leaders, like all of us, are flawed, finite, and fallible. As such, they need followers who faithfully provide feedback and help them fulfill their best intentions.