Lessons can be learned from many of life’s endeavors, but I’ve found backpacking seems to offer more than its fair share of learning opportunities. Who knows, maybe the mind is distracted by productive thinking while trying to avoid questioning one’s own sanity in lugging a 40-pound pack around the woods.
Recently, my teenaged daughter and I shuffled off to the boonies. This was her first backcountry backpacking experience so she was on a steep learning curve. Somewhere along the journey I realized there are numerous leadership lessons that can be drawn from our experience. Here are 10 takeaways for leaders that certainly relate to guiding others and leading organizations.
(1) Know where you’re going. Trails crisscross in the woods and it is easy to get disoriented and lost. Leadership principle: Leaders must have a destination in mind, have the map that guides the journey and must know the “landmarks” well enough to know if they are accomplishing the objective.
(2) Pack the right equipment. Some people pack way too much or pack all the wrong equipment. Leadership principle: Leaders must have sufficient human and financial resources to reach objectives but it is possible to have a bloated organization or poorly allocated financial resources. Determine the objectives, then “pack” the right resources.
(3) Check on those behind you. As the lead hiker, it is easy to set a pace that exceeds the ability of others to keep up. Leadership principle: Leaders must keep the group moving forward together. Leaders who charge off and leave others behind risk creating an environment where there is loss of focus, disunity, frustration, and stragglers who can’t keep up.
(4) Watch for roots and rocks. Tripping and falling while toting a 40-pound pack can be dangerous. The lead hiker is responsible for identifying potential hazards and giving others a heads up. Leadership Principle: When everyone else has their heads down charging after the leader, the leader has to see potential threats first, communicate, and provide safe navigation.
(5) Teach people to boil water. A propane-fueled JetBoil is a foreign object to someone who has never operated one before and they need to be taught how to use it to safely boil water. Leadership principle: Leaders shouldn’t “boil water” when others can make that contribution to the overall success of the organization’s mission. However, people can’t be expected to do certain tasks if they aren’t taught how. It is a leader’s responsibility to make sure everyone is clear on expectations and trained to meet those expectations.
(6) Let others do things. By teaching, then letting my daughter be responsible for boiling our water for rehydrating meals, I was able to do other more complicated tasks like securing our food so we wouldn’t have unwanted bear visits. Leadership principle: Leaders need to teach, then let people do. Leaders must resist the temptation to “just do it themselves” when they get impatient. Most people learn by repetition and if they never have the space to become proficient, they can never share the load.
(7) View the scenery. The backcountry can be beautiful, but the scenery can be easy to miss while concentrating on navigating the trail. Leadership principle: Leaders must be aware of the environment around them and remind people to look up and see the bigger picture.
(8) Never stop on uphill climbs. Climbs are easier if you establish a rhythm and gain momentum. Push to the summit then rest. Leadership principle: All organizations face challenges but leaders must keep employees moving forward through such times or momentum can be lost at critical moments. “Rest” when the milestone is reached.
(9) Keep pressing forward. Sometimes enthusiasm wanes when the journey is long but the only way to reach the destination is to keep moving forward. Leadership principle: Leaders provide direction, instruction, and motivation. Leaders keep organizations moving forward.
(10) Promise BBQ. To keep my daughter motivated I promised we would celebrate our hike’s completion with some of the best BBQ in town, a nice incentive following numerous dehydrated meals. Leadership principle: Don’t be afraid to incentivize performance to reach goals. Celebrate accomplishments. There is nothing more satisfying than celebrating – together – the completion of a difficult journey.
Organizational leaders are like trail guides, good ones can make a difficult journey enjoyable and bad ones can make even the easiest journeys miserable. Employ these 10 principles and it’s almost certain you’ll become a better leader and your organizational journey will be a good one.