Human enhancement: Lessons in training from in extremis contexts

Thomas A. Kolditz, 25 Sep 2013

The reactions of those in extreme situations can have a huge influence on outcomes. The prompt action of individuals in the face of a natural catastrophe, a storm or a flood for example, can save lives and reduce damage to property. As such, any means of improving the ability of individuals in extreme situation is of great interest to those responsible for risk management and the re/insurance community.


Develop future leaders' competence
Teach future leaders to accept motivation from extreme challenge or threat
Develop a learning orientation in those you develop
Develop a sense of shared risk
Does conventional leader development fall short?
An inspirational leader-development approach
Final thoughts

For those of us who develop leaders in extremis (Latin, “at the point of death”), the developmen­tal process is simple: coach junior leaders in extraordinary settings, teach skills, help impart judgment, and keep people alive. Most ex­treme sports-and certainly police, military, and fire trainers­ establish training standards and protocols to ensure that individuals develop competence and ability in a progressive, sequential fash­ion. However, those responsible for training leaders in high pressure, even life-threatening scenarios, know they must push their subjects to another level.

For example, in the formative years of sport parachuting, usually the person on the drop zone making the decisions and developing other drop zone instructors was the person with the most jumps. Similarly, in the high-stakes merchant banking business, it used to be common for the biggest producer to be placed in charge of run­ning the organisation as well. Yet as we learn more and more about organisational dynamics, it is apparent that there are much better ways to develop leaders. At the extreme of human performance and in dangerous environments, many develop­ment practices nonetheless hinge simply on routine education and train­ing principles. Direct expe­rience in dangerous contexts shows us, and we have always sensed intuitively, that in extremis settings place unique demands on leaders and followers. Leadership in high-risk settings requires a modi­fied approach. Whether you are working with skydivers on the ride to altitude, challenging firefighters with a deliberately torched inferno, or coaching a hedge fund analyst on a billion dollar trade, think through the principles that guide training at the pinnacle of extreme risk.

Develop future leaders' competence

Confidence, not just functional ability, is the goal of in extremis leader development
Competence is the principal basis for trust or loyalty. When a leader has internalised the recognition of his or her competence, we label the feeling confidence. A leader who appears confident sends a tacit message to others: that they should rely on the leader's competence because the leader is convinced it exists. Therefore, confidence is important not only to the individual leader, but it is also an important perception that others must have in order for the organisation to solidify. The more dangerous the circumstances or threatening crisis, the more important it is for a leader to remain confident.

Always emphasise that trust must be justly earned
People who lead in in extremis settings have to be enormously humble and unassuming. Allow plucky confidence because followers are inspired by it. Crush self-righteousness, cockiness, and arrogance because they will eventually be uncovered as false by others and by the leader as well, thereby undermining confidence. False pride has been the fatal flaw of many leaders at the extreme of human performance.

Demand demonstrated flawless performance
Training developers understand this fundamental approach to high-risk training, but the primary principles bear repeating. Because in extremis settings often require perfect execution the first time, teach simple tasks to per­fection, and chain them to complex tasks. Require a minimum of twenty-five repetitions of physical tasks. When possible, teach under safe conditions first, and then transfer the learning to the more extreme setting.

Know when to stop
Development often means tolerating minor setbacks and coaching through failure. The same is true for the development of in extremis leaders, but only to a point. It is up to the person in charge of development to sense when failures are an indication of a persistent or dispositional flaw. At that point, the developmental path for that individual ends. Do not apologise for it. Not everyone can operate consistently at the extreme.

Teach future leaders to accept motivation from extreme challenge or threat

The presence of inherent motivation implies that the leader - in any setting - has to gauge and adjust their level of excitement and the excitement of their followers. In developmental activities, set the right tone.

Manage excitement
Emotions can push an organisation into an inappropriate level of excitement and passion. The real problem with emotion in both dangerous and more mundane settings is that it tends to change the way people view the possibilities and proba­bilities of various outcomes. In other words, emotion influences the judgment of both followers and leaders.

True in extremis settings provide ample motivation by them­selves; therefore, do not amplify anyone's excitement when risks are high by spinning up. The best leaders exhibit their calmest and most level-headed demeanours when the circumstances are most dangerous. Hyper enthusiastic or Feldwebel types get people killed in dangerous environments, and can turn off an elite athlete.

Read other people
Learn to assess when others are in touch with the degree of threat in their environments by watching their excite­ment level, spirit, and motivation. There should be a match.

"Embrace the suck"
In situations when conditions are difficult or miserable, it is essential to motivate even the most dedicated individuals. Whether it is heat, rain, cold, filth, or simple exhaustion, deal with the misery intelligently and with some positive energy-in other words, "embrace the suck." If conditions are bad enough to be life threatening, do not hide that fact. Use the motivating qualities of the situation to push others beyond their perceived limits.

Develop a learning orientation in those you develop

In all organisations, and particularly in dangerous settings, part of leadership is preventing people from being excessively self-focused. Instead, keep them in the learning mode; orientate them towards the tasks at hand in their environment.

The environment is trying to defeat you
When people are in touch with environmental threats, they naturally focus outward, inher­ently motivated toward survival. Therefore, when you are develop­ing leaders, foster and reward continual scanning and analysis of what is happening. Such active sense making helps keep the leader and the led fully aware, which equals survival. The best investment performers focus outward to construct reality and get ahead of changes in the market. Early, sketchy reports of major events, for example, the assassination of a head of state, an airplane crash, the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 - form the basis for immediate and instinctive money management decisions by top analysts. Such deci­sions, usually made by the most experienced traders and institutional investors, can be incredibly lucrative because they occur before every­one else has the details that help form the basis of logical deductions.

Read other people
Stay alert for signs in others that their attention is turning inward. For example, injuries should be completely ignored unless they are functionally debilitating. Worry or other emo­tion is an indication that an individual is turning inward rather than maintaining focus outward and continuing to learn and piece together solutions to threats.

Share language
Share a common understanding through language. Extreme environments are unique, and every profession, sport, or activity involving high risk has a common terminology. Ensure that definitions are completely shared and commonly un­derstood. Miscommunication kills learning, and it often kills people as well.

Develop a sense of shared risk

Individuals may perceive selfishness or self-focus as necessary for survival. In groups in danger, however, just the opposite is true: shared risk, particularly among leaders and the led, makes the orga­nisation more survivable and the leader more trusted by followers. Leader development needs to foster an appreciation for the effect of shared risk.

Value selflessness
Often highly competent and ambitious individ­uals are drawn to the challenge of high-risk activities. Keep in mind, though, the need to recognise, reward, and foster selflessness, self­-abrogation, sharing, and looking out for others. Self-absorbed loners and extroverted egomaniacs should not be made responsible for oth­ers in extreme environments, they are poor team members, and their own performance will be inconsistent because of their poor emotional control.

Dissect risk management
No one, leader or follower, can afford to take stupid or unnecessary risks in an in extremis environment. Risk management is a professional tool and a required organizational process. Ensure that everyone understands how risk decisions are made and the difference between a calculated risk and an ill-advised gamble. Immediately sort out and retrain individuals who make poor decisions or take uncalculated actions that threaten their lives, and especially the lives of other people. Financial risk in elite business is no different, and risk is always collective. Preparation helps leaders learn when it's time to walk away from a risk and when to continue. The U.S. Military Academy sport parachute team plans and executes night parachute jumps as a developmental activity. Prior to the jumps, the cadets and coaches prepare and review a risk management worksheet that identifies the unique risks of the activity. The worksheet is seventeen pages long and includes no fewer than twelve abort criteria for the jumps. Think back to your last business risk. Were there clear abort cri­teria? Some strategists would argue that such techniques are con­straining, but the lesson from dangerous settings is that without such criteria, the pressure to make the right decision at the right time is almost unbearable. It is easier for some to understand if the decision is simply characterised as telling the truth. One of the biggest cha­llenges with risk management is having the personal discipline to tell the truth. And nowhere is that skill better honed than in phys­ically dangerous contexts. Risk management, trust, and the truth all intersect in dangerous environments. They need to intersect in other environments as well.

Explore motivations
People who place themselves at the extreme, whether in a leader or follower role, have personal motivations for doing so. Experts learn to understand and explore these motivations with people. Why does this person want to be a SWAT officer, a risk analyst, or a tandem parachute instructor? Is it sensation seeking? Ego-enhancement? Other rewards? When you get accom­plished at deconstructing people's motivations, it's much easier to coach them into the right frame of mind for the challenges they are accepting and the risks they are taking with the lives and livelihoods of other people.

Does conventional leader development fall short?

Most of the popular leader development activities with which I am familiar fall far short of producing qualities in individuals that are found among in extremis leaders. For example, skill-focused leader training is the most common leader development approach in use today, yet I would argue that it is only minimally compatible with the elements of in extremis leadership. In skill-focused leader train­ing, the assumption is that a leader is the sum of his or her capabil­ity to perform tasks. In order to perform any task, an individual needs to have knowledge of what needs to be done, the skills to per­form the task, and the motivation to undertake the task and carry it through to completion. For many years, training developers and human resource man­agers have focused on knowledge, skills, and abilities as a basis of employment and for constructing training programs and develop­ment programs intended to increase performance. The logic of such an approach is undeniable: knowledge, skills, and abilities can be objectively measured and tested to ensure that an individual has the capacity and the capability of performing work at a given level of performance. Assessments of knowledge, skills, and abilities can then be matched to job requirements to validate the capabilities of employees. Ideally, competence is increased, and the person being developed is therefore a better leader. Knowledge, skills, and abilities can show a connection between measurable outcomes and organizational goals. The assumption, then, is that after they are learned, the organisation will perform better.

Interestingly, however, organizations often do not perform better after an increase in individuals' knowledge, skills, and abilities. Although there is a host of causes behind such an outcome, one rea­son is that even after skill training, an individual's fundamental character is so dominant in his or her leadership style that the per­son simply reverts to his or her original ways of leading. In other words, skill-based leader development may change what a person knows and what a person is capable of doing, but leadership is also about what one is— a character component. It takes time and powerful experience to change the character of an individual. Another problem with the skills-focused approach is that it usu­ally lacks any quality of inspiration—something common to leading in dangerous contexts. "To inspire" literally means to fill the spirit. There is a spiritual quality to the moral obligation of an in extremis leader who leads people in dangerous contexts. Inspiration impacts an individ­ual's character: when we are truly passionate and inspired about something, our fundamental character changes to match.

An inspirational leader-development approach

Perhaps the simplest form of inspiration a leader can provide is a poignant story. Each organisation, whether at the extreme of human performance or not, has stories of great victories, of admirable performers, and agonising failures. Make them come alive through storytelling, rather than charts, graphs, or more mundane communication. The organisational influence will be palpable.

Inspire by using technology to link people and places
Leader developers often assemble panels of experts-highly success­ful CEOs, political leaders, and combat veterans-to share their expe­riences and inspirational stories. An example is the World Business Forum, a traveling assemblage of the world's most successful leaders who speak on leadership and leader development. Such an approach has some merit, but it uses role models that show developing leaders what we want them to be in ten or twenty years. Instead, consider connecting peer leaders in different contexts and places via tele-presence. Link people and places to humanise and inspire.

Inspire by exceeding people's expectations
Creative, determined leaders can help span the gap between in extremis and more routine settings, and the effect is powerful. In my role as a professor at West Point, bringing the war to the leadership classroom was daunting; no fieldwork had been done in this area since the oral histories of World War II and Korea. The solution was as simple as it was profound: send the instructor to the source. I researched leadership in combat field settings, and wrote a book. In this case, my students’ expectations were dramatically exceeded—with the outcome being inspiration as well as education. Business leaders, along with leader development professionals, need to dramatically exceed—not simply meet—people’s expectations.

Final thoughts

Dangerous contexts build leaders and the right leadership habits better than any other context, including higher education. To cap­italise on this phenomenon, you don't have to rush to the top of a mountain or out the door of an airplane. In extremis leadership works just as well conceptually, and it has considerable utility across a broad range of circumstances. The best way to do that is to spend time in the dangerous setting, observing and objectively analysing what occurs; if that's not possible, the next best choice is to learn as much about it as you can.

Thomas A. Kolditz was a speaker at the Centre's conference Human enhancement technologies: pushing the boundaries.

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Thomas A. Kolditz

Thomas A. Kolditz, Director, Leadership Development Program, Yale School of Management; former Head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York

Tom Kolditz is a Professor in the Practice of Leadership and Management, and is the Director of the Leader Development Program at the Yale School of Management. A retired Brigadier General, he was responsible for teaching, research, and outreach activities in Leadership, Psychology, Sociology, and Management at West Point for 12 years, and also served as the founding director of the West Point Leadership Center. 

A highly experienced leader, General Kolditz has more than 26 years in leadership positions, serving on four continents in his 34 years of Army service. He is a Fellow in the American Psychological Association and in the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, and is a member of the Academy of Management. His most recent book, titled In Extremis Leadership: Leading as if Your Life Depended on It, was based on more than 100 interviews taken on the ground in Iraq during combat operations.

He has been named as a leadership Thought Leader by the Leader to Leader Institute and as a Top Leader Development Professional by Leadership Excellence.  He is the principal at Saxon Castle LLC, a firm focused on leader development consulting. He holds a BA from Vanderbilt University, three master’s degrees, and a PhD in social psychology from the University of Missouri.

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