Thomas Kolditz, a retired brigadier general who is executive director of Rice University’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders and formerly led the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy, has a name for the kind of leadership shown in Thailand. He calls it “In Extremis” leadership, the title of his book published in 2007 and the focus of his research on what leaders experienced in life-or-death situations know about keeping people calm and resolving impossible situations. The Washington Post spoke with Kolditz about the role of the boys' coach, the five themes that define “in extremis” leaders, and what people most want to see from the people in charge when their life is on the line. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
So what is “in extremis” leadership?
While I was at West Point I wanted to create a research movement around leadership in dangerous places. In extremis is the Latin term for “at the point of death,” so I used it as an organizing principle. Initially I just wanted to provide West Point cadets with more accurate information about how to lead in combat, because most of it was based on war stories, and I wanted good solid social science research done on it.
What kind of situations did you focus on for your research?
I did most of the research in Iraq, but I interviewed people who were climbing guides and took people up difficult climbs like Mount Everest, large formation skydiving organizers who put 300 to 400 people out of airplanes at the same time, and a woman who took HD video teams into the Indian tiger preserves and videoed tigers on the ground.
The way crisis leadership is usually studied is through the case study method, and so you’re studying people in ordinary companies who never really wanted to be in a crisis but found themselves there and either fixed it or didn’t. The problem with that is you’re essentially studying crisis amateurs, and what I wanted to do was study crisis professionals — people who are in dangerous places all the time, and look at their techniques, their approaches to leadership, how they were different.
There are so many leaders here who have had to step up — the officials in charge of the rescue operations, the medical doctors, the Thai SEAL divers. But the 25-year-old soccer coach who was with them during those days before they were found has perhaps played the most critical role.
Without question, that soccer team leader — the way he reacted to the circumstances they were put in before they were discovered — is of absolute paramount importance. If they trusted him, if he said, “I don’t have all the answers right now, but they’re going to find us. We’re going to be fine. It’s just going to take some time,” then I suspect most of these boys will get through this with very little problems. He was defining reality for those kids. If he defined it by giving them a way ahead and by giving them hope, that’s exactly what was needed. I understand he’s very spiritual, that he’s had them meditating.
Why is keeping people calm so important in such circumstances?
What people need is to be inspired that there is a way ahead that has positive outcomes for them. They don’t need a highly rational, highly accurate, logical leader. They also don’t need a shallow emotional leader, someone who’s just going to try to pump them up. What they need is someone who can establish a vision of the way ahead — even if there’s no detail to it.
Fear is really uncertainty about what the future holds. If you give people an alternative future to the one that’s occupying their fears, and you give them a sense of purpose, it helps. In the case of the Chilean miners trapped years ago, they developed a whole organizational structure in the cave to give them that sense of purpose — they had a religious adviser, they had a medical person, they had organized work crews that did a lot to help keep things stable there.
The soccer team was bonded to begin with, and they trust this coach a lot. But it's the ability of all the people, whether it’s somebody on the outside or the rescuers who show up or the coach. The point is to literally deny the possibility of failure, to deny the possibility of bad outcomes and focus those kids on the way forward.
What did you find in your research?
Five themes emerged. The first is something called “inherent motivation.” Leaders who do well in crisis tend to be low motivators. They do not fire people up, they tend to calm people down. Dangerous places are inherently motivating — people are already spun up, so if you go in there and act like a cheerleader, they think you’re a fool.
The second was what we call an “outward orientation” or “learning orientation.” People used to being in dangerous places learn to focus on the environment — they’re not thinking about themselves. They're not focused on their own emotions. When you are task-focused, you’re activating a different part of your brain than the part where you experience fear and anger. That helps keep them calm. I don’t know this to be true, but I bet the rescuers gave the kids who were about to go out some kind of little job or task, whether it’s counting the number of minutes, or whether it’s counting how many times the lead diver taps them on the thigh. It would cause the kids to focus on something else.
And the other three?
The third thing we found was having “shared risk.” People tend to trust leaders who have skin in the game, who also are occupying a similar level of risk. In this case it’s perfect. The divers who are taking them out — they can say: “Look I’ve done it. I’m just asking you to do what I’m going to do.”
The fourth was something we called a “common lifestyle.” What that means is when people are in scary situations, they want leaders they can relate to. They don’t want a leader who is aloof; they don’t want a leader who sets themselves apart. We’ve already heard banter reported about the rescuers who are in the cave talking to the kids about what their favorite food is, that sort of thing. That is the establishment of a common lifestyle.
Then the fifth and final thing we found when people are afraid, the number one variable — far and away — was competence. They want to know: Is that leader good enough to get us out of this fix? And the second thing they want to know is will that leader be loyal enough to take our concerns and considerations into account when he or she makes decisions? If those two things are established — competence and loyalty — they’ll trust that leader.
There was a retired Thai navy SEAL who died on the way out. Could that hurt the trust in rescuers' competence?
Frankly I hope nobody ever told those kids that. They’ll find out later. The people who were helping these kids could not quibble at all about their ability to get the job done. They had to be able to look those kids in the eye and say 100 percent, I’m taking you out of here, and you’re going to be seeing your families. They just had to exude confidence. The notion of competence needs to be just sweating out of those people.
Are there differences in how a leader should act in such a situation because they’re still children and teens rather than adults?
The principles are the same, but what’s firm to a 22-year-old Marine is probably going to be way too firm for a 14-year-old soccer player. The coach, probably better than anybody, knows how far he can push them, maybe even better than their parents. He was really well equipped, given his history with those boys, to know when to turn up the heat and when to forgive and relax and try to calm people down gently. It’s just that balance.
One of the things we always argue to the people we are training as leaders is don’t think you're going to adopt some leadership style. In half the circumstances it will be wrong. Sometimes you have to come across in a very reasonable, sensitive fashion and other times you just have to bring the heat. That’s the circumstances he was in down there, deciding when he was going to talk nice and calm them down in a gentle way and when he was going to have to jump in and say we’re not going to panic. I think we’re going to see some really heroic stories about this guy coming out. It was life or death, and I think most people step up.