Will Pemba Sherpa Be On the Quiz?

You need to learn your lesson! So listen up to Mike Roberto, a fast-talking consultant who uses the '96 saga as a teaching tool for students, lawyers, and businessmen.

Aug 15, 2006
Outside Magazine

"OK, PEOPLE! HERE WE GO!" says Ira Rosenstein, a partner in the New York-based international law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Rosenstein, a bookish 41-year-old, is trying to get 250 conventioneering lawyers to settle down after lunch, which isn't easy. It's a perfect South Florida day, sunny and in the eighties, and the litigators would rather be outside sampling the fun at the Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne—like sailing and swimming—than sitting through another canned exercise in team building.

But there's no escape, and, besides, this exercise sounds kinda cool. "Leadership is a lesson that can be learned, which is why we've hired this man to speak about Mount Everest," Rosenstein says of the day's last speaker, Mike Roberto. A 36-year-old consultant with a doctorate in business administration from Harvard, Roberto has built a nifty sideline out of lecturing on the leadership lessons he's gleaned from the Everest disaster of May 10, 1996.

"Mike Roberto has three degrees from Harvard, including a doctorate, and he used to teach there," Rosenstein says. "He's written a case study on Everest—remember those from law school?"

Roberto takes the floor, wearing a headset mike. He's five foot eight, black-haired, and amiable, and he quickly launches into an engaging hour-and-a-half dialogue with the audience. "So! You've all read the case study," he begins, his voice booming in the cavernous hotel ballroom. Heads turn down. Papers shuffle. "What went wrong on Everest in the spring of '96?"

The lawyers gamely shout answers—hubris! testosterone! altitude!—while Roberto compiles a list on an overhead projector, pacing the room between scribbles. When he really wants to drive home a point, Roberto tends to stop, pirouette in his loafers, and lunge forward. He plays to the crowd by making self-deprecating Italian jokes; before long he has them eating out of his hand.

It's a strange concept—using the world's most famous climbing tragedy as a management lesson—but Roberto does a brisk trade with his Everest case study, lecturing about 12 times a year for a fee that an Orrick representative puts in the vicinity of "the tens of thousands." Since 2003, Roberto has taken his act to 20 different states, the UK, Japan, Costa Rica, and Canada. Among his clients have been Morgan Stanley, Mars (the candy company), Novartis (pharmaceuticals), Segue Software, and the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island.

The appeal? Even for nonclimbers, Everest is inherently riveting, and Roberto knows how to make the '96 events relevant. "Our partners want to work with people who understand our culture," says Laura Saklad, Orrick's director of professional development. "At company retreats like this, the trick is to find someone who can both teach and entertain. That's Roberto."

AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR at Harvard from 2000 to 2006, Roberto turned to Everest in 2002, having already written case studies about subjects like winemaker Robert Mondavi and the Kennedy administration. To produce his Himalayan brief—whose short and sweet title is Mount Everest: 1996—Roberto culled news reports, compared Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air with Anatoli Boukreev's The Climb, and sought out expert opinions from David Breashears, the adventure filmmaker who was on the mountain in '96, shooting footage for the Imax film Everest.

Breashears, who is currently working on a new documentary about the '96 events (slated for release this fall), has an office across the street from the Harvard Business School. Roberto cold-called him in 2002 and asked him to speak to one of his classes.

"He does a marvelous job," says Breashears, who isn't bothered that Roberto has no experience in climbing. "Mike never tells his students why. He uses the Socratic method and asks them to tell him why."

In an introductory 21-page document, complete with maps, graphs, and endnotes, Roberto summarizes the Everest story and introduces the main players. He relies heavily on Krakauer's version of events, and his conclusions (which he expanded on in a journal article) are similar: Bad decisions—possibly driven by guides' desires to get paying clients to the top and exacerbated by altitude sickness, unexpected weather, and tough luck—led to calamity.

Roberto's main positive lesson from all this is that good teamwork and meticulous decision making can, in theory, offset the natural shortcomings of individuals. To demonstrate what he means, his talks center on the actions of guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, the owners, respectively, of Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness. As every student of the tale knows, these two men were attempting to lead a total of 14 clients to the summit on the same day, and both ended up tarrying too long at the top. When an afternoon blizzard rolled in, both Fischer and Hall—along with two of Hall's clients and one of his guides—ended up dead.

Roberto believes one of the fatal flaws on Everest was poor communication that blocked the flow of criticism. Like many lead guides, he says, Hall established himself as the absolute ruler, ostensibly to protect his inexperienced clients. The unexpected result, however, was that Hall's clients—and even his fellow guides—didn't speak up about problems.

This attitude turned out to be deadly, Roberto says, because when Hall failed to adhere to a strict turnaround time on summit day—a fixed hour when everyone was supposed to start descending, whether they'd summited or not—his team was ill equipped to make decisions on the fly. "Rules alone are not good safeguards," Roberto told me during one conversation. "Groups must be able to hash out risks, because you cannot predetermine risk. Recalibrating is very important."

On the group level, Roberto argues that the expeditions were teams in name only and that both groups displayed an absence of "learning behaviors," such as the ability to discuss mistakes, exchange information, and challenge prevailing views. Roberto emphasizes that "the strength of teams is that they can minimize cognitive biases by maximizing" these beneficial behaviors. Effective leaders, he says, inspire people to work together by implementing methods for "deciding how to decide."

IT'S A ROBERTO TRUISM that stubbornness and self-discipline—two qualities that mountaineers and businessmen possess in abundance—can be blinding. He uses a PowerPoint display to illustrate his theories, offering diagrams and labels that categorize the psychology of bad choices.

On the individual level, Roberto points to "cognitive biases" that, he says, caused the Everest climbers to evaluate the mountain incorrectly. One is the "sunk-cost effect," which refers to people's tendency to escalate commitment to a course of action that they're heavily invested in already. (Translation: "I paid a bundle to be here, so I'm not quitting now.") Another is the "recency effect," which refers to the way people sometimes make decisions based on whatever information is most readily available, even if it's inaccurate.

"Hall and Fischer had enjoyed excellent weather on Everest in recent years," Roberto asserts to the lawyers. "Even though storms are the norm and not the exception, recent events led them to assume that the trend would continue."

Roberto keeps up a brisk pace when speaking, and the Orrick group seems attentive, but as he hammers away, one of the lawyers looks irked and asks for the handheld microphone. "You're being totally unfair to Hall and Fischer," she protests. "They did the best they could in a dangerous situation and died trying to help their clients."

"I'm not being unfair at all," Roberto counters. "If you read the case study, you'll see that I'm very sympathetic to them." He says Hall and Fischer made mental errors that could happen to anybody. "The pattern in mountain climbing—and in business—is that we take the expert and make him the boss," he says. Pirouette. Lunge. "Not always the best choice."

Later, Roberto tries to trap a British lawyer into admitting to breaking the speed limit when he drives. His goal is to prove that people routinely take unnecessary risks; to that end, he asks the man what kind of car he owns.

"I have three, actually," the Brit glibly responds. The room erupts in laughter.

"OK, I forgot who I was talking to. What's the speed limit where you drive?"

"Well, I mostly drive on the autobahn." More laughter.

When Roberto finishes his talk, he receives a polite ovation and Rosenstein grabs the mike again. "OK, people! Just a reminder: The buses leave for South Beach at 6 p.m." The room empties fast; these people are ready to unwind.

A week later, I contact several of them to see how Roberto's lecture went down. In a lighthearted e-mail exchange, John Evans, the British attorney, writes that he thought Roberto's program "was the best part of the retreat (apart from the sailing, of course!)." He's grateful that Roberto reminded him of how important it is "to care enough to confront your colleagues."

Ken Turnbull, who practices law in Washington, D.C., is less enthusiastic. "I found Dr. Roberto to be a compelling teacher and the Everest events compelling in their own right," he writes. "At the same time, there is a fundamental difference between making decisions that affect one's own life (or the lives of others for whom one is responsible) . . . and the effective leadership of teams of attorneys."

Having heard Roberto speak on two different occasions, I've learned a lot about quantifying leadership, but the talks also left me feeling vaguely unfulfilled, because he said nothing about the core motivations of adventurous people. To me, climbing is an end unto itself—its singularity and risk defy deconstruction. Good judgment in the mountains comes from experience. And experience, for better or worse, sometimes derives from making (and surviving) bad choices.

During a post-lecture beer, I pressed Roberto on this point, and asked him if he had any designs on climbing the big hill himself, to check his assumptions.

"I would never consider climbing Everest," he demurred. "I leave that to the experts."

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