Lessons From a Failure in Leadership

Burton Winters was a typical fourteen-year-old living with his parents in Makkovik, Labrador.  Winter weather makes snow mobile driving a necessity there and, like most of the boys in his community, Burton was an experienced driver.  One afternoon in February, he set out on his machine to visit his grandmother.

He didn’t make it home.

Somehow, in the dark and harsh weather, Burton missed a crucial turning and lost his bearings.   Instead of going towards home, he and his machine headed out many miles onto the sea ice.  Eventually, the machine became stuck and Burton continued on foot for another nineteen kilometres, all in the wrong direction.

The local Makkovik authorities appealed to the Canadian Forces Search and Rescue detachment for help in locating Burton.  They were refused.  At first light, the following day, the local community made arrangements for private helicopters to conduct a search but none had either the equipment or expertise to care for someone who would most certainly be suffering from serious hypothermia should they find him.  Sadly, Burton’s frozen body was eventually located lying on the ice, miles away from home.

I watched this story unfold on the television program, The Fifth Estate, last week.  From a leadership perspective, one thing leapt out at me.  The Rear Admiral, commander of Maritime Forces, Atlantic  and  in charge of the Search and Rescue detachment, chose not to lead, but to manage at a time when leadership might have made a crucial difference in the outcome.

When asked why he had not deployed a Cormorant helicopter to help in the search for Burton, he responded by stating his primary mission as “marine and aeronautic search and rescue”.   He went on to say that had he assigned even one of the three available SAR helicopters to search for the teenager and was called to respond to what he described as an event at sea, he would not have been in a position to fulfill his primary mission.

I will not pretend to know all of the complexities involved in running this kind of operation.   It no doubt has some very unique challenges.  But, I think there are at least a couple of lessons in leadership here to consider.

One is about, Getting the Purpose Right.   I wonder if the Rear Admiral in this story might have made a different decision had he seen his primary mission not as, “Marine and Aeronautical Search and Rescue” but  as “Saving Lives”.   Perhaps if he had chosen to look at it differently, the outcome might also have been different.  As it was, he opted not to respond to a real situation in favour of securing his Command’s ability to respond to a potential one.

Secondly, it is about knowing When to Lead and When to Manage.  I don’t know much about military operations.  I do know there are a lot of protocols to follow.  Protocols are put in place to create order and ensure the safety of personnel who are often exposed to dangerous situations.   This case required the leader to act, in full knowledge of the associated risks, and also in spite of them. However, managing the protocol seems to have taken precedence over responding to an immediate and dire situation.

This leads me to my final thought, which is about Knowing When to Break the Rules. I believe rules are meant to serve us, not the other way around.  They are put in place for a reason. However, they should never become sacrosanct.  Times and situations change and sometimes rules become impediments.  Of course, we will never know what might have happened if the military had responded differently to Burton Winters’ plight. But to me, it comes down to a matter of knowing when to throw out the rules and simply do what’s right.

What do you think?



Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Management

13 responses to “Lessons From a Failure in Leadership

  1. For me, when a life is at stake, follow rule number 3 and forget everything else. Amy Edmondsen writes a great piece in the April issue of Harvard Business Review that references the attempts to rescue the Chilean miners in 2010. The only rule is “get them out alive.” Period.

  2. Terry Thomas

    HI Gwyn
    I don’t think you will be surprised when I say I did not like this story. It’s not at all uplifting or inspiring. Though your points about leadership failures are right on target. Unfortunately, it seems the limitations in the story are becoming too common in today’s world. In recent years, my limited perspective leads me to believe that many of today’s organizational leaders are more focused on their own image, career, promotion, and pay scale than on the organization as a whole. Just as the commander in the story, many leaders have a perspective on a limitation of resources: “What if we can’t respond to another emergency?” “What if we don’t have enough money, resources, employees, etc” Just as the commander missed out on how his search could expand with the willing volunteers, today’s leaders are putting more and more restrictions on employees.

    On the opposite side of the see saw, I really enjoyed last week’s posting about faith in the workplace. I read it at a time when it’s message had a lot of meaning for me. I think the faith component is what was lacking in this week’s story about the lost boy. If the commander, just as today’s leaders, could see all the resources we have at hand, workers, technology, and money, we could focus on positive outcomes. Some people would argue we don’t have money, yet look at how much was spent on the Megaball Lottery. If today’s leaders could use the intangibles, such as faith, to weave together the tangibles, such as volunteers and helicopters, then instead of one person perishing, we could nourish the multitudes!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry ~ You make a good connection between to the two stories. And no, I’m not surprised you found this week’s story distasteful. There are many reasons for making choices that seem wrong. Mostly though, I assert they come down to fear. We do not know what kind of anvil was hanging over the head of this particular Rear Admiral but I think we can agree that whatever it was, it should never have come at the cost of someone’s life.
      Thank you for sharing your wisdom here.

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    HI gwyn Teatro i have read the two story but what i come to understand is that Leadership today are intolerant,short temper,unconcerned about staff welfare morale.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Odongo ~ While this is certainly true in some organizations and governments, I think there is an opportunity for you in your country …and me in mine, to make a difference by demonstrating leadership as being tolerant, inclusive, and engaging.

  6. Duane Queen

    Hi, Gwyn.
    Thank you for the story. It is a sad but often very real example of what Leadership has come to. In many instances, leaders who have made the right choice have paid the price for it by losing their positions. While that should never be a barrier to doing the right thing, it too often simply is. The leader has to consider their family’s welfare. True leaders at higher levels will not only forgive variences, but applud them and use them to further mentor their growing leaders, but many leaders today join the doomino effect (yes, I spelled it that way on purpose) due to fear of losing their positions.
    I personally learned this a few years ago when I was in a leadership position. I got a call from a very distressed and depressed employee who was on Workers Comp. He was threatening to commit suicide by handgun because he felt he was being cheated and scandalized by the company. I could not send police or rescue to his exact location, as he would not reveal it until I was in very close proximity (I was to call him on my cell when I reached a certain landmark). I was called by a couple of “leaders” of the company telling me not to meet the individual or risk disciplinary action. I did what I thought was right and continued to the meeting, thenb told them where it was for police back-up as soon as I knew where he was. I lost a very good job for it. If I had to do it again, I would still go and help the person, as life and safety come before all else. Period.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Duane ~ Yes, fear of what we stand to lose often creates a big barrier to doing the right thing. Nobody said being a real leader was easy.
      Thank you for sharing your story here. It sounds very harrowing indeed. While it is sad that you lost your job, it occurs to me based on your story, that there was rather a large gap in values between you and your company. When values differ, unhappiness usually reigns. You sound like a person who is very clear about what he stands for and who follows the dictates of his own conscience. That is worth a lot.
      Thanks for coming by.

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