Snake Bit! A Case Study in Making Haste Slowly

In the heat of a crisis, as leaders we tend to want to jump in and start making decisions.  The situation calls for boldness, decisiveness; now is our chance to rise to the occasion.  To fail to act immediately may be interpreted as weakness.  But if we act hastily we risk making bad decisions and making things worse instead of better.

Here’s a story from a recent outing I was on where our group suddenly faced a crisis situation, and was given the chance to show that making haste slowly is the right thing to do.

Making haste slowly

Meet Jake

The snake had an angular head and a geometric pattern on its back.  The victim didn’t hear a rattle, and didn’t see one, but then there wasn’t much chance to look.  It all happened so fast.  He only saw the snake for a few seconds and then it was gone.  But as a souvenir of the encounter, there were two red marks on his left calf.  He called to his friends for help.

He told them about the snake.  They sat him down to take a look.  Others in the group gathered around and exchanged concerned looks.

But the red on his leg was not blood.  It was red ink.  From a marking pen.  That’s when they knew that Challenge #4 had begun.

Had This Been a Real Emergency…

It was leadership training weekend for our Scouts, and we had ten of our Troop’s leaders out on the Appalachian Trail.  The goal was to develop their leadership, teamwork, and problem solving skills by giving them unexpected challenges to overcome.  This would not be a classroom discussion; it was hands-on all the way.

As we walked, every mile or so we would stop them, designate a new leader, issue them a challenge, and let them get to work.  Already they had improvised hasty survival shelters, constructed elevated sleeping platforms, and engineered a method to get someone across a “raging stream” without getting wet.

They were equipped only with what they had in their knapsacks, what they could find around them, and their wits, to solve the problems we presented to them.  This challenge was no different in that sense, but it was going to be tough.

For this challenge, we had shown our “victim” a picture of a Timber Rattler, then marked the bite on his leg with a red Sharpie.

Asking Good Questions

After some initial confusion, the team started to get their act together.  They began by breaking the problem down and asking good questions.

What kind of snake was it?  The description of an angular head and scale pattern led them to decide that it was probably poisonous – a Timber Rattler (they don’t all have rattles, and don’t always use them if they do).

How do we treat it?  A couple Scouts thought they knew what to do, but they referenced the handy Boy Scout Handbook to be sure.  They dressed the wound, kept the leg lower than the heart, and did their best to keep the patient calm and comfortable (the days of cutting an X over each fang mark then sucking out the toxin are gone, thankfully!).

How do we get help?  They said they would call 911 if this were real, so I gave them my phone after dialing one of our leaders in camp who would role-play emergency services.  Can you come to help us?  No – the woods are too dense, the trail too rugged.  You have to bring him out.

Where do we go?  They had topographic maps and a general idea of where they were but not much more than that.  Retracing our steps to where we parked was too far; there’s a Scout camp up ahead.  Let’s go there.

2 man carry How do we carry him?  Time was of the essence, so they decided on a two-person carry – two people interlock arms forming a seat for the patient, who sits and holds onto their shoulders.  They had practiced this method before, but carrying someone across a room is far different than lugging them down a trail.  It worked for a little while, but it was taxing, and our patient was working too hard.  Need to keep his pulse low.

How can we do this better?  One of the strongest Scouts volunteered to just carry him piggy-back style.  That also worked for a little while, but the trail was challenging.  How far do we have to go?  It’s still at least a mile.  Take a break.  Need a new plan, and quick.

How can we do this better?  Improvise a litter.  They found two long straight branches on the ground, removed the limbs with hatches, and wove a tarp over them, forming a make-shift stretcher.  They tested it with someone else to be sure it would hold before putting the patient in it.  They let his leg dangle down to keep the bite area below the heart.  On the count of three, they lifted him up; two carriers in the front, two in back.

This was working – the patient was much more comfortable and the team was able to move faster and more efficiently.  With the work load distributed, it was much easier to carry him.  A Scout with a map led the way.

How can we do this better?  Even as they carried him, they were starting to come up with better ways to get the job done.

     “We can use the work gloves in our knapsacks to save our hands.”
     “Let’s use loops of rope over our shoulders to help support the weight.”
     “We can rotate who is doing the carrying so we don’t wear one person out.”
     “Someone should focus just on taking care of the patient.”

As they came up with these ideas, they adjusted what they were doing.  It became easier and easier to carry the Scout, keep him comfortable, and move him to help.

Here they are half a mile down the trail; you can hear them starting to talk about using work gloves.

Getting There

The Scout camp was over a mile away.  With all their adjustments in place, they made good time and arrived at the access road where a vehicle could have met them.  We congratulated them on their team work, told them the challenge was over; the victim could walk in from here.

Carrying someone for a mile over rough terrain is quite an accomplishment; they had something to be proud of.  It was only about ½ mile more to get to our actual campsite.

Their response?  They wanted to keep carrying him.  Through camp.  For all other campers to see.   They were proud of what they had accomplished.

They also had the victim practice moaning in agony in hopes of shocking anyone in the camps we would be passing!

Making Haste Slowly – The Takeaway

Making haste slowly means taking a minute to be thoughtful about what you are doing, intentional about carrying it out, and always looking for ways to improve.  Here are some key takeaways from this tale of the trail.

Ask good questions.  Do your best to define and understand the situation before taking immediate action.  A couple good questions now could save a lot of difficulty down the line.  Define the problem you are facing.

Check the book.  Even if you are in a hurry, if it is important to get it right then take a second to be sure – check the book, find an expert, get the Lessons-Learned from the last time.  Don’t re-invent the wheel or repeat mistakes if you can learn from someone else.

Take action.  When time is short, do the best you can to figure out what needs to be done, then get to work.  We could have sat for a while to discuss the perfect method to deal with our “casualty” but the longer it took to act, the fewer options we would have.  Find a simple, acceptable solution that solves the problem, and move out.

Work as teams.  Try to match strengths and skills to the critical tasks, then build teams around your key players (The 6-T Method).  Designate a leader for each team, and then coordinate the efforts of the teams.  Our group eventually formed into an Aid Team, a Navigation Team, and a Litter Team.  The sooner you can figure out what teams you need, the better off you will be.

Always look for ways to do it better.  Your hasty solution may not be the perfect answer.  Always be on the lookout for things you can do to make it better.  As you get more familiar with a problem, you will see better ways to deal with it.

Practice; make it real.  It’s one thing to talk about how you might do something, or try it out in a controlled environment.  The entire calculus changes when it’s real, there is extra gear to contend with, and you don’t even know how far you have to carry the guy. If you are preparing for something important, practice.  And make it as real as you can; it’s amazing the good things you will learn.

If it's important, practice. Do it under the most realistic conditions you can. Make it tough. Click To Tweet

Was their initial response to the Snakebite challenge textbook-perfect?  No, of course not.

Did they figure it out by asking good questions, taking definitive action, and refining their method as they went?  Sure they did.

Will they be better at this task and others like it the next time around?  Definitely.

I don’t ever want to get snake-bit, but if I was, I know I’d be in good hands – these leaders know all about making haste slowly.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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