As Coloradans living in the Rockies, we value the heritage of the 10th Mountain Division, look to their history for lessons in outdoor survival, cherish exploring the huts they built. We perceive 10th Mountain as a brand of excellence, legendary in the ski and snowboard industry. As leaders, we look to skill sets acquired through operating in the mountain environment for unique leadership lessons.

The Homestake Fiasco

In late February, 1943, the 10th Mountain Division realized that they would not be a defensive force for North America as originally thought. The threat of invasion had been eliminated as Germany and Japan had both been contained. The mission of the 10th would be to fight and regain ground, likely in Europe. But there was one major issue: the 10th had never done a major maneuver, and as the first specialized division in the US Army, its equipment, protocols and even tactics had not been tested in the field.

With that knowledge, a full battalion set out the top of Tennessee Pass to camp at Homestake Lake.  The maneuvers that occurred there over the next week became known as “The Homestake Fiasco”.

Tennesee Pass traverse - 10th Mountain Division
Tennesee Pass traverse - photo credit

Numerous mistakes were made and problems plagued the battalion at Homestake: some troops were undertrained, not knowing basic ski and survival techniques. The tents they had were not insulated enough for the -30 F temperatures at night. Frostbite and elevation sickness were rampant. The oppositional force never deployed for maneuvers because too many of the training forces were unable to operate. In the end, at least one officer was relieved of his leadership role.

Leadership Lesson #1: Practice Resilience

How does a group recover from something like that? Research on resilience suggests one of the things that the men of the 10th did is an essential practice in a resilient reaction to bad events. They framed it well.

The men of the 10th Mountain Division applied an essential practice in a resilient reaction to bad events. They framed it well.

The power of how we perceive a failure like the Homestake Fiasco is so powerful that resilience researcher George Bonanno of Teacher’s College in New York prefers to call them “PTEs” – potentially traumatic events. Bonanno’s research has shown that a key aspect of resilient behavior is to interpret an event as a learning opportunity instead of as a trauma or failure.

Leadership Lesson #2: Make Trauma or Failure into a Learning Opportunity

One of the 10th’s potential failures that they turned into a learning experience was their tents. It snowed inside the tents because of breath condensation building up and freezing. This “snow” would fall and get the soldiers’ down sleeping bags wet, reducing their utility. Instead of throwing up their arms in defeat, the soldiers looked to some of the experienced mountaineers and began making the use of snow caves, which managed moisture well, a standard operating procedure.

Trooper Traverse 10th Mountain
Trooper Traverse 10th Mountain - photo credit

The 10th mountain division didn’t look at Homestake as a trauma, but as a learning experience. While it was given that name by some involved, the lessons learned carried many of the green recruits forward into their capability to thrive and fight on mountains. Many of the principles learned in at Homestake were directly used in the next major training event, the Trooper Traverse the following February. The legacy continues to live through Vail Centre’s Sempre Avanti program coming up this year, April 6-8, where a portion of the traverse is used to strengthen your leadership self-knowledge under pressure.

So what’s a leader to do? The soldiers of the 10th had an advantage where Homestake was explicitly a learning experience. How do we avoid the trap of labelling an event a failure instead of learning? The practice of learned optimism has an answer.

Leadership Lesson #3: Learn Optimism

When psychologist Martin Seligman put forward the idea of learned optimism, a key leadership lesson, he found that individuals who are more likely to see failures instead of learning opportunities have three generalizations that they make about events: Me, Always and Everything.

  • Me: The pessimist thinks they are alone – in blame and in the work to get out of a situation. Look for the contributions of others in the cause of your PTE, and look for help in learning and rebounding from it.
  • Always, and its partner Never: Absolutes that belie the reality of circumstances that need to come together for a PTE. Only one exception is needed for always and never to be false. And that one exception opens up the space for learning instead of trauma.
  • Everything: When one PTE makes us feel like failures in every aspect of our lives, we are falling into the trap of everything. Being resilient means seeing the boundary of the PTE – what it is and what it isn’t – as a step in understanding where the learning from the event can be applied in the future.

Take Action, Apply the Lessons

Often it’s not easy for us to see a traumatic event as a learning experience instead of trauma. Failing at work, arguing with a partner, or hurting our bodies are quickly and easily seen as a bad experience, not learning. But the example of the 10th and the research on resilience tells us that we should look at the experience with an optimistic eye.

  • A strong first step is to examine your internal dialogue and see where you are falling into a trap of me, always, everything.
  • Then begin looking for alternate perspectives on the event, to see where the lessons may reside.
  • In the end, use the resilient response to see the traumatic event for what it is and to help learn and grow from it.

Share Your Perspective on Leadership

Have you or your company experienced a potentially traumatic event that helped you grow? Share it in the comments below; you’ll inspire us and the other readers.

Do you have an interest in developing your leadership skills further by learning from the 10th Mountain Division, and while in the mountains? Explore the Sempre Avanti destination program.

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