• Rob Kenning

When the Snake Bites: Leadership in high pressure situations

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

I remember how surprisingly slowly she had walked up to me on the beach that afternoon, given the context. The sun was still high, and the whole expedition team was enjoying a lazy afternoon swimming in the lagoon - much needed after a 8 consecutive days of trekking in the close humidity of Central American rainforest. As she stood over me, "Sara" (not her real name) pointed to a small cut on her big toe. It looked like she had scrapped it on a rock - "I was just swimming. I think it's a snake bite" she said.

[Now at this point, dear reader, it's important for you to know - if you don't already - that snake bites in jungles are what most unfamiliar travellers probably think of first. In fact did you already think that when you read "trekking" and "rainforest"? Well, if you didn't then I can tell you I have been there a few times and a lot of folk do - but its generally an over-egged fear, like great whites shark attacks when you're surfing, or that your father-in-law will notice that bottle of wine you bought was from the bottom shelf at Sainsbury's (ie the cheap stuff).]

Anyway, back to the story, so Sara pronounces she has been bitten, and I previously commented her pace and how "surprisingly slowly" it was as, for many people, getting a snake bit would be pretty high on the list of reasons to lose your head, but she kept her cool. In fact, it was smart on her part, as for certain types of bite snake bites, staying calm helps keep the heart rate down and so the venom pumping round more slowly.

Now as a younger but equally enthusiastic Expedition-Assistant-in-training as I was at the time, I remembered my training and after a quick once-over the toe in question, headed off at speed to grab our Expedition Leader. He (a man) got the situation under control pretty promptly - doing a quick bit of first aid and getting me to check the map (assess the situation); deciding it was urgent and so a helicopter was needed (make a plan) reassuring Sara and telling her and the staff team what we were going to do (communicate the plan); got a team member to call for the helicopter and others to clear a landing site and prep the stretcher (carry out the plan); and within an hour the helicopter had arrived, landed, picked up Sara and headed off to hospital. So we all turned around, high on the frantic adrenaline and feeling of a job well done, and saw the 5 or so other team members still bathing in the lagoon!

In our efforts to provide the highest care to Sara, we had failed to assess the wider risk to the team who weren't involved. That meant that they were still at risk - for that hour or so of time that it took to create the plan and carry it out. There could have easily been more team mates bitten in that time. Needless to say, as soon as we realised our error, we immediately got the rest of the team out of the water.

The situation was a significant learning point, with many positives and only 1 - albeit significant - development point, which I was grateful to receive early on in my expedition career, and it has stayed with me for the decade or so since...

In a high pressure or crisis situation:

  • Assess

  • Plan

  • Communicate (the Plan)

  • Carry out (the Plan)

  • Review

And when you do Assess, make sure our mental net spans wide enough to capture all your possible stakeholders - who else needs to know? Other departments? Managers up the chain? Employees down the chain? Internal customers? External customers?

And what happened to Sara? After 24 hours with a 'tingly leg", she stayed on for another day of observation and then rejoined the team for some tree planting and, thankfully, just a story to tell and a ride in a helicopter.

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