Sometimes I wonder at folk are talking about leadership. There are so many thoughts on Leadership and so many Quotes “buzz words” and experts on the subject. In my my experience leadership was a process of learning from others. I was so honoured to be a Mountain Rescue Team Leader in the RAF. Mountaineers are by far very individualistic and driven and as a group can be hard to control? Many think that being in the military it would be easy to be a leader as the military discipline takes control. Yet most of the RAF Mountain Rescue Team were some of the most unmilitary folk you would meet. Yet get them together as a group and they were the best of the best. It was hard keeping the Senior Officers happy you had to tread a fine line at times. I learned the hard way how to do this and when to push the boat out.
The Team Leader in these days was in complete charge though we had an Officer in Charge the Team Leader ran the team. We also has a senior officer at MOD in London in the early days who was in total charge but he was guided mainly by the Team Leaders. As in any job we had good and bad and I learned from many of them, upset most but in the end found a balance. In these days you could speak your mind tell the Senior officers what was wrong and often you achieved results much to the horror of your immediate bosses who saw there careers over. At times your career had a blip but in my view you need folk who question authority especially in life threatening incidents. You have to stand by your decisions, whether its going into an aircraft that’s still on fire to ensure there is no one alive or on a mountain in avalanche conditions.
In every situation I was responsible where and what my team did, I accessed the risks with my experienced troops and made the decision. I was so lucky to have learned from so many different types of leaders. All the ones that mattered in my life were mainly Mountain Rescue leaders plus a few Officers in charge or part of that system. We ran a Team Leaders Course where though it was not perfect we learned a lot from and we adapted this through the years with various course added.
In my opinion this tests leadership qualities to the full working at time’s in often life threatening environments. It’s not a game and you are tested regularly. Much was learned in my early days and I did take so many lessons from them. They were great role models. I wrote a while ago about Leadership “when your not there your Team will never let you down. Train hard, give responsibility especially to the young and they in my experience will never never let you down.”Nearly 40 years in Mountain Rescue of managing risks on real operations and often training when others were not out due to the severe weather. That’s what we had to do. Unlike the other teams we had to know our area learn to work with other teams. It was a huge area the whole of the North of Scotland and the Islands.
The mountains and nature take no prisoners yet I was so proud that all my members came back safely every time they went out. It is unspoken by many but most Team Leaders worry especially in extreme weather about there team. Newer team member’s return sometimes wide eyed with a tale to tell of the power of nature or an epic during the day . Yet what they learned in these days was of huge benefit to all. To lead you have to know your team their strengths and weakness. We used a mentor system later on and looked after each new member on a one to one basis. Added to this all team member’s could ask for help and advice at any time from a more experienced team member and ensuring that they were given various ways to gain the knowledge they needed.
Team Members became a big part of the Mountain rescue family. In the military it was hard for the system to accept there was “no rank” on the mountains. It was your ability as a mountaineer that allowed you to lead that group. I learned very quickly from some of the best. I will never forget my first hill party in winter taking my group round Ben Nevis Carn Mor Dearg and the Aonachs coming off in poor weather in the dark. A testing day in short daylight hours I was no longer a party member or a follower and it did my confidence so much good.
Once on a call out after a big rescue in the Cairngorms I took my party of the hill as Coire Domain was in terrible avalanche conditions. I came back to Glenmore lodge thinking that Fred Harper the Principal would be annoyed. Yet he took time to tell me these are the decisions that mountaineers make. He said it was correct and it made me feel so much better. As the years rolled on you learn from your mistakes (hopefully) admit them and ensure they never happen again. I learned how much the families worry and give up for the team. How easy it is to get carried away and it can leave you little time for looking after them especially in a busy team. Once we were away for 10 days on various call outs all over Scotland. At the time I was not aware of what my family were going through at this time. They do worry for us and there was no mobile phones then. Sometimes you have to explain to the team members that we are not exempt from accidents and it’s hard to explain this to the young mountaineer who are what I call at the “invincible” stage”. Group safety is so important no matter what is going on in a Rescue. We must look after each other at all times. Training was hard it had to be and taking a group out in severe weather was what we had to do. That first time you navigate in a white out and bring everyone home is a huge confidence boost for a young leader.
Advice on what routes to climb and giving them the confidence to go for them all helps your Mountaineering Confidence as a leader. We often had to go into areas with no Avalanche forecast on the early years. I would phone my friend Blyth Wright the Avalanche expert for his advice on these areas especially up North. These were invaluable to brief the team members with as much knowledge as possible. The training helped as we often climbed in remote areas to get to know them in case of a call out. Training was so important and as the years progressed we introduced varied training based on experience for novices trained and party leaders. This involved often bringing in other organisations like Glenmore Lodge to update and validate our training and teach us new skills. It also helped us improve as mountaineers as that was our first task to be a component mountaineer. Many pushed the standards for the rime did some great Alpine routes and onwards to the Himalayas and the Artic.
Keeping the team safe whilst pushing standards especially in the military was never easy. Hard decisions were made regularly. As my first stint as Team Leader at RAF Leuchars in Fife. They were a young team within a year we had our hardest test. This was at Lockerbie where 270 were killed in a tragic terrorist attack. The team were exceptional. They all proved to themselves as they rose to every changing situation. We were there for 3 days working with other RAF Teams, the local teams, SARDA and so many other agencies. We knew many of the agencies we worked with this was invaluable. It was a life changing event it took its toll on many including myself. I was burnt out after trying to listen to so many friends struggle and struggled for many years.
I went straight from Leuchars to Kinloss as Team Leader and at the end of my tour I was exhausted. My family suffered and struggled and all these years have managed to start to live with my demons. I learned from that over the years that someone has to look after the leader, this was unknown to me at the time. I think I was able to do this in future years with pals who became Team Leaders. Few mention this aspect of Leadership. We have learned nowadays about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects on Rescue Services and their families. In the early days it was hardly accepted but now we know more and can get help for those that need it. You have to know your team to see the signs and get the help you need.
Many of the Civilian Team leaders I have spoke to are retired. They have so many untapped memories and advice on Leadership yet are rarely asked for advice. What a resource not to use ? I am sure others may agree? I was so lucky I had tremendous folk as Deputies other leaders to discus things with and learn from. They would tell me where I was wrong and I needed that advice often. Its so easy to think that its all under control but others see things you miss. Each Team leader, party leader and team member was so different and I learned from so many. Even though I have been retired for 14 years the boys and girls still in my teams at times comeback for advice or help. What an honour that is for me after all these years.
David Whalley 40 years with Mountain Rescue Teams. Twice as Team Leader and once as Deputy and over 35 years a party leader. I learned every day thank you all for the advice.
Comments as always welcome.