Team Leadership: Guiding Principles to Overcome Adversity

Written By: Jason Ilowite

Recently, Rigging Lab Academy concluded a 5 day custom rope rescue course for a small, all volunteer team on the island of St.John in the US Virgin Islands. The course was set to focus on utilization of a large cache of recently purchased, modern rope rescue equipment such as an artificial high directional, MPD and ID. The team had a varying level of rope experience ranging from solid experienced technician, to never touched a harness before. A course outline was made, daily plans were set, and all we had to do was wait for 0800 on day 1 to start.

Balls Get Dropped… When Reality Hits, Be Ready For Anything

Upon arriving on the island, RLA met with the team’s leadership to tie up some final odds and ends, scout out some sites, and inspect the new cache of equipment. It was during this last step where plans were changed drastically. It was discovered that the artificial high directional that the course was to be focused around was missing. After digging a bit further, it was discovered it was never even shipped by the manufacturer. This was of no fault of the team’s, they had never even seen this high directional before and as a result did not know what to look for amongst all their new gear. Simply put, the manufacturer dropped the ball.

As the instructor, my initial thoughts were man, this is really unfortunate as the AHD was to be the focus of the class. It wasn’t until we started scouting out training locations that reality hit me. We have no AHD, and the environment on the island was one of the most challenging I’ve seen to rig, and presented little to no natural High Directional options. Suddenly, I had 5 days of instruction to fill without the main time occupying component (the AHD), in an environment that would be challenging to rig even for the most experienced rope gurus out there, and a team with a handful of folks who had never transitioned a high angle edge. It was time to change gears, with just one evening to figure it all out before class started.

Heroes In Our Midst… Just Coming Off Back To Back Category 5 Hurricanes

As an individual instructor, and a member of the RLA team, failure was not an option. We had been dealt a very trying circumstance, that honestly would likely make some other rope instructors turn their nose up and say, “Get back to us when you have the gear”. This training however had nothing to do with me, or us (RLA). It was for and about them. They are the Heroes.  They were a team who had weathered two category 5 Hurricanes (Maria and Irma) and were motivated and knowledge hungry in order to better serve their community. We would have to come through, we owed them that. Here are a few guiding principles that I tried to adhere to so that we were able to ensure the best outcome possible.

Expect The Unexpected

Expect the unexpected. Try hard not to be frazzled when plan A does not work out. Be confident in your abilities as a leader, instructor, and rigger to deliver a plan B. If you are really effective at this, the group you are teaching should never know a plan A existed.

Attitude Is Key… No One Cares About Your Excuses

Attitude is everything. Nothing will ever be perfect, and occasionally several less-than-perfect things happen all at once. Around day 3 I briefly hit a mental block after several unfavorable events surrounding the lack of gear, and effective training locations. As a human being it is ok to be frustrated. The difference is, as the leader everyone is looking to you to make it work. Even if at that moment you feel like “making it work” will take super human abilities that you don’t possess. The fact of the matter is, no one cares about your excuses. You are in the position you’re in for a reason. Lower your shoulder, put a smile on your face, find a new approach and do what you are there to do.

Kill The Ego

Tie a cinder block around your ego and push it off of a cliff. Being the instructor, or leader, or supervisor does NOT mean you have all the answers. Every single individual you meet has something to offer and knowledge that you do not. Don’t be so proud that you are foolish and do not listen. Use the unique knowledge of those you are teaching, leading, or supervising to your advantage. There are some out there that are intimidated by knowledge that students or subordinates bring to the table just because they know more about a particular subject than they do. If you are that kind of “leader” you need to step down from your leadership position..and do it immediately.

Excellence In Leadership Means Having An Open

Be open, honest, and transparent about EVERYTHING. There is no room for secrets in leadership. Communicate fully with your students about your expectations, their progress, the goals you have for them, and the challenges you are facing as a class. Everyone should have a seat at the table. Doing anything that is the opposite of this is a guaranteed way to lose trust. Without trust, you have absolutely nothing.

If An Individual Isn’t Getting It, It Is The Leaders Fault

If at any point you feel like a student just “isn’t getting it”, you need to take a good hard look at your delivery method as a teacher. It is NEVER their fault and most assuredly ALWAYS your fault if they can not grasp a skill. You are the leader, it is incumbent upon you to figure out how to alter your delivery to ensure the success of your class. If they fail, it is because you have failed as a leader.

The end result of this class was a huge success. We all endured the challenges together and found a groove to really accomplish a ton of learning. Yes, there was a bit of adversity to deal with at first, but not a single person walked away without solid knowledge in their mental tool box, and a smile on their face.

Cheers, Jason

To Jason, it’s important that people who practice rope rescue craft an understanding of the “why” behind the “how”, something that is not often something explored in the fire department rescue world. As an instructor at Rigging Lab Academy, Jason offers a great perspective from both inside and outside the fire rescue world which allows him to convey important messages to his audience in a very relatable way.


Peace on your Days



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40 thoughts on “Team Leadership: Guiding Principles to Overcome Adversity”

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