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In Extremis Mentorship Pt I

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

This is the first of a two-part series on In Extremis Mentorship. This first part will define in extremis conditions and leading within those contexts. Having taught an upper-class elective entitled “PL471: Leadership in Combat” in West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, founder and Executive Director Chevy Cook lays the foundation for our understanding here. 


Leading others is a crucible event. Regardless of what side of the “born leaders vs made leaders” debate we may find ourselves on, many would agree that leadership is not an easy undertaking. Context matters, however, as leadership lies on a spectrum of difficulty with regard to the circumstances within which leaders find themselves and leadership and its effectiveness is largely dependent upon said context (Osborn, Hunt, & Jauch, 2002). Leading large, unwieldy, or geographically spread groups, leading others through organizational change, or leading in dangerous or high stress environments are, undoubtedly, highly arduous. Leading in high stress and/or dangerous contexts is fundamentally the same, yet qualitatively different, even from leading in other difficult contexts. These contexts are known as in extremis, defined herein as leading where there is physical danger and/or where followers believe that leader behavior will influence their well-being. Outcomes mean more than success or failure, pride or embarrassment – they can be hurt or healthy, dead or alive.


Examples of in extremis leaders abound in the military, but others include emergency first responders, law enforcement, members of fire departments, and even certain industrial settings. In extremis conditions include, but are not limited to combat situations, natural disasters (i.e., floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes), major accidents involving human life (i.e., traffic collisions, arsons/fires, mine collapses) and terrorism (i.e., indiscriminate public bombings, school shootings, coordinated random acts of violence) and can even happen in many other organizational circumstances regardless of whether the people involved operate in what would be considered regular in extremis conditions (i.e., workers in the World Trade Center on the morning 9/11 were not in extremis leaders, but they certainly were involved in extreme contexts thereafter). These conditions were further defined by Hannah, Uhl-Bien, Avolio and Cavarretta (2009) as “discrete episodes or occurrences that may result in an extensive and intolerable magnitude of physical, psychological, or material consequences to—or in close physical or psycho-social proximity to—organization members.” In extremis conditions are different than a crisis scenario (i.e. Wall Street collapse, insurance company hacking, identity theft) in that life, health and safety of multiple individuals is inherently at risk now or very soon, where the threat is of intolerable magnitude within an imminent timeline. Decision making, then, becomes of the utmost importance. Aside from the accident, disaster, or mission itself that leads to in extremis conditions, studies show that the second major source of negative outcomes derives from errors from leader reaction during and in the aftermath of said event (Dynes, 1974; Dynes, Quarantelli, & Kreps, 1981).


Under stress or in danger human behavior tends to fall into scripts, schemas and other well-learned responses, in addition to physiological responses such as flight or fight. To lead under such conditions, especially when no level of training can cover every scenario or situation, becomes a very ambiguous task. After years of study, Thomas Kolditz introduced the in extremis leadership concept in a book appropriately titled In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It. Therein Kolditz (2007) found that successful in extremis leaders (1) possess an inherent motivation for the task, (2) share risk with their followers, (3) embrace continuous learning, (4) adopt a lifestyle in common with their followers, and (5) are highly competent, and inspire trust and loyalty in others. In extremis leaders understand that human judgement deteriorates under pressure and anticipate critical intervention points where leader action (or potential inaction) determines performance and, thusly, potential for positive outcomes.


Additionally, leadership in dangerous situations is inherently unique and requires a high level of psychological hardiness alongside three specific psychological demands – competence, character and care (Sweeney, Matthews, & Lester, 2011). When danger is imminent, leaders need to know what they are doing (competence), have honesty and integrity to do the right thing (character), and show genuine concern for others’ welfare (care). It should be noted that when it comes to leading during in extremis conditions, competence becomes the most important of these demands; results from studies conducted in combat environments conclude that followers placed the most emphasis on leader characteristics related to competence, such as decision making and technical/tactical knowledge (Sweeney, Matthews, & Lester, 2011). A leader’s competence is what determines the trust of their subordinates in most conditions, but even more so in dangerous, unpredictable and/or high stakes situations. Without subordinate trust, both morale and performance degrade (Matthews, 2014).


Understanding the subordinate experience is very important, because regardless of the context, if you are not being followed, you are not a leader. Leadership is not an amalgamation of characteristics that manifest within oneself – it must be externally ‘confirmed’ by the experience of others. Group dynamics psychologist Margaret Rioch (1971) stated that “the word leader does not have any sense without a word like follower implied in it” and that “most relationships can be looked at as variations on the theme of leadership-followership.” Keeping in line with the inherency that leadership is a process, you cannot extricate the fact that there is a transaction occurring between the leader and the follower and their respective perspectives/experiences. As such, there is an inexplicable linkage, and the in extremis leader becomes even more burdened with both creating and maintaining a tight-knit and trusting relationship while also initiating, continuing, and refining communication and direction.


Instability abounds in the world of leadership. In extremis conditions add an immense amount of pressure and challenge to those leaders’ shoulders, and a more fundamental understanding of how leaders operate in said situations is essential. Gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for both complex and dynamic circumstances may also inform leaders in more stable but stressful environments (i.e., corporate executives, nuclear power facility managers, news reporters), which may even include leaders associated with in extremis conditions but who are not dealing with a crisis or in extremis scenario at hand (i.e., noncombat or staff military leaders, fire department administrators, search and rescue coordinators). Although individuals in business, those not deployed, or those in an office may not be facing death, they often find themselves in stressful situations that could mean the death of their enterprise, their organizational culture or other negative impacts that effect the livelihood of their employees and teammates.


References Dynes, R. (1974). Organized behavior in disasters. Newark, DE: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware.


Dynes, R., Quarantelli, E. L., & Kreps, G. (1981). A perspective on disaster planning. Newark, DE: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware.


Hannah, S., Uhl-Bien, M., Avolio, B., & Cavarretta, F. (2009). A framework for examining leadership in extreme contexts. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 897-919.


Kolditz, T. (2007). In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Matthews, M. 2014. In extemis leadership: leading others when the chips are down. Article online. Accessed from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/head-strong/201407/in-extremis-leadership, 2 June 2018.


Osborn, R. N., Hunt, J. G., & Jauch, L. R. (2002). Toward a contextual theory of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 13, 797−837.


Rioch, M. (1971). All We Like Sheep—Psychiatry. Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 34(3), 258-273.


Sweeney, P., Matthews, M., & Lester, P. (2011). Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for Armed Forces, Emergency Services and First Responders. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

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