What I Learned About Leadership from The Icelandic Rescue Team

leadership life thoughts Jun 15, 2013

A year ago I signed up for the Icelandic Rescue team, a decision that ended up being one of the better ones I have made in later years. The rescue team is a large group of volunteers that have the mission of helping people in dangerous and difficult situations often where the police, paramedics and the fire department can’t. These situations can be quite diverse, for example helping people that get lost or injured in the mountains or at sea. To become a qualified member of this team you must finish a 2 year training program and I just finished my first year.

When I started my training I thought I would learn all kinds of things about mountaineering, first aid, climbing, sailing, navigation and other such things that I connected with adventures. What I didn’t realize is how much I would learn about teamwork and leadership. One of my most memorable experiences from my first year in the training is also the experience that taught me a great lesson in leadership and I would like to share that story and what I learned here with you.

The story begins at the end of the winter when it was time for the rookies (including me) to put into action what we had learnt over the winter. We were to spend the weekend up in the mountains where we had to reach all sort of posts from GPS coordinates and at each one we had to resolve some sort of obstacle such as help an injured man, answer questions, rappel down the mountainside, find a lost person etc. I was working in a group of two other rookies and we were dropped off on the Friday evening a few hours hike from where the games would begin the morning after. So the first evening we hiked about 2 hours, pitched our tent in the snow and everything went without a hitch.

The day after we woke up packed our stuff and started walking, there was heavy wet snow over everything that made our travels a bit slower then we had expected but the weather was not too bad so it was fine. After having walked for 11 hours in this heavy snow one of our group members had to leave the group so that left only the two of us left but we were determined to continue and finish the mission. So even though we had only rested for a few minutes at a time to eat and were about 2 hours behind schedule we continued tired and exhausted. Soon the weather started to get worse and we decided that we would only do one more post and then head to the cabin where all the other teams were waiting.

After finishing the post the weather started getting much worse and we had a hard time seeing what was in front of us. When we were getting closer to the cabin and all that was standing in our way was a large mountain and about 1 km (0.6 miles) of hiking we stopped being able to see anything, the weather had turned so bad that all we could see was whiteness around us. At that point we had been walking for more then 14 hours, we couldn’t see anything and the GPS we had was acting strangely. We dropped down into the snow from complete exhaustion, I have never in my life been as completely finished both physically and mentally and it is not a feeling I will forget anytime soon.

So there we were two guys out in the middle of nowhere unable to take one more step from exhaustion, unsure of what way was the right one and trying to keep calm and think clearly. This is the moment when I truly realized how dangerous the Icelandic nature can be and how easy it could be to die in the mountains. If we would not have had the right equipment, training and a rescue team close by that might have been the end. We would have had to dig ourselves into the snow, spend the night there and hoped for the best.

In these extreme conditions I learned my biggest lessons on leadership in times of trouble.


1. You can’t do everything by yourself.

When we sat there in the snow we realized that we couldn’t get to the cabin by ourselves. We could have tried but that might have ended in us getting in more trouble since we were not thinking clearly and were not sure on the directions. For a person like myself that usually never asks for help with anything it was really difficult to take up tha radio and admit that we were in trouble and we needed help. I felt like I should be man enough to do it myself, but it was the right decision. There was no jeep or anything that could pick us up but they sent a fully trained rescue team member to our location to assist us.


2. Keep calm and be respectful.

The speed of the rescue person was impressive as it only took him a few minutes to come over the mountain even though it was only possible to see a meter or two in front of oneself due to the weather. The relief of seeing him come over the mountain was amazing and when he approached us he was respectful of our condition, he realized that we were exhausted and talked to us calmly and friendly.


3. Take care of your team members.

Before escorting us over the mountain he took up a emergency tent so that we could get cover from the bad weather at first I didn’t want to sit down and rest, I just wanted to get this over with since I wasn’t sure if I could get back up if I would sit down at that point. But he insisted and I was in no condition to disagree so we sat down inside the tent and he gave us food, water and chocolate to make sure we had some energy for the walk. At first it was difficult to eat and drink but I soon I was able to eat and felt better afterwards. His decision of sitting us down, letting us catch our breaths and recharge our batteries was completely correct in this situation.


4. Clear goals and confident leader.

When we had rested and eaten we got ready to continue onwards. Our rescuer, even though we still could see very little, had no doubt when he pointed towards the direction we would walk in. If he would have had any sign of uncertainty in his voice or actions it would have been difficult to follow him properly since I know I did not have enough energy to walk in the wrong direction or make any mistakes along the way. His clear sense of direction and confidence motivated me to continue.


5. Have a path to follow.

When we started walking we could follow the path that our rescuer had made when he came to get us. So even though we could only see a few meters in front of us we knew that we were going in the right direction because we could see his footsteps and we were 100% sure the led to the cabin.


After a grueling walk over the mountain we finally reached the cabin and we had made it. At that point my body and mind was completely finished and I could do nothing but lay in bed and sleep. The day after I felt like I had been been run over by a truck but I had accomplished my mission the day before and I had made it to the cabin thanks to the leadership shown by the Rescue Team member that saved us when we were lost.

And here is a picture of all the rookies the day after 


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