This morning I was sent an article from the Harvard Business Review on a subject of which I am particularly keen; the benefits of teaching corporate leadership in a wilderness setting. It is something I have reflected on a lot over the years, but rather in the same way that a childless person can imagine parenting – you do not really know what you are talking about until you are woken at 3.00 am by a child vomiting or you are trying to figure out the integrity of your teenage daughter’s would be suitor. After 25 years of watching and developing leaders outdoors I now work in a corporate environment where I see two kinds of managers and leaders. There are those that have been “battle trained” and those that have gained their smarts from books, classes and experiences in a somewhat artificial environment, a place where they are sheltered from the true consequences of their actions. So in a similar vein to last week I want to offer up 10 thoughts about developing leadership outdoors and why it is so potent.
Firstly, you can never blame nature, it just is and your successes and failures are a result of the way that you interact with it. Period. If you are cold you did not bring enough clothing or you are not thinking warm enough thoughts. If you are hungry you did not bring enough food. If you are ready to collapse and do not think you can go any farther then you have bitten off more than you can chew, you are not fit enough or you need to develop your resolve by having more of these moments. Conversely, if you are soaring on the elation of a view or an adrenalin high you must have done something right even if you do not know what it was.
Leadership is hard to define and yet it is easily felt. It is less of a role and more of an agreement. When it is thought of as a series of easily measured rules and responsibilities it often loses its essence. Take a group of friends who regularly paddle challenging white water together. On any given day the structure of leadership will look different. Who is “on” that day, who feels the flow and is willing to take point, who is “off” and sees the wisdom of deferring an emotionally charged decision. The leadership of the group is organic and also the result of the individual energies that each member brings and the collective energy that they create. At any moment decision making can be by consensus, abdicated or elected to the person in the best position to make it. Basically, in the outdoors leadership usually has a flatter hierarchy because it is naturally evident that everyone brings something to the table, it also becomes obvious that leadership and fellowship are part of the same continuum and it is basically best to take whatever role is necessary to meet the team’s needs.
Relevance makes learning leadership natural:
Leadership can be learned. My leadership certainly developed over the years and I have had the pleasure and joy of watching thousands of people grow around me. Teaching in the outdoors is about scaffolding experience on top of experience, sometimes it is deemed a success and sometimes it is perceived of as a failure, however there is always the potential for learning. Learning is manifested by reflection. The thing about the outdoors is that it is simple and consequently often easier to define success and because of this people take the time to do it. Also, there is a natural relevance that makes reflection worthwhile. Inevitably this is followed by accelerated learning. Put simply, when in nature a group is more likely to naturally do what groups need to do to be successful. It is certainly far easier to steer them towards a culture of success.
I am yet to find a relationship that was not defined by trust. The thing about sharing adventures is that you put yourself in a position where you develop trust through necessity and you do it quickly. The other piece is that you repeat adventures with the people who responded to and reciprocated the level of trust that you invested. I do not climb as much these days as I used to and usually it is with my seven year old son, my best friends though; the ones I am most invested in, are the ones with whom I have shared time in the outdoors. The ones I wish to seek most counsel from are the ones I repeatedly shared a rope with in the most hazardous places. I learned to trust these people because I had to. One of the other reasons that I want their opinion is because I know it is based on the sound reasoning of natural cause and effect.
Planning is a large part of any adventure. My sights are currently set on walking the Colorado Trail, and I feel I may have already spent as much time thinking about it; especially the logistics, as it will probably take to walk it. I have been scouring information on how people have maintained ridiculously light packs while walking alone. I have poured over maps. I have tried meals I might cook. I have made stoves out of cat food cans. Cai & I have been camping without a tent to experiment with small tarps. The bottom line is that I want to go into this thing with the lightest pack I can safely manage and this requires trial and error. So I will start with a plan because I can control this, however there are so many things over which I do not have jurisdiction that I will also have to be flexible to change. Nowhere have I been so schooled in this balance of planning and responding as in the outdoors. Being hit by rock fall a quarter of the way into a route in the alps with no chance of retreat. Gaining a col after a days travail in the Himalayas only to find descending the other side was suicide. Being caught out on 20 foot swells with a group of students sea kayaking in Baja and hoping for a safe, sheltered beach to land on. These lessons have real consequences which lead to real growth.
Have you ever been stuck in a tent with someone for a month? The rain is teeming down, neither of you have had a bath for weeks, you are sharing the most incredible views and adventures, yet you are also sharing your smells, the sad stories you have told a few too many times and the angst of failed relationships. Perhaps, you also both know the taste of gasoline infused food because of a spill in a backpack and perhaps that infusion was the direct result of one of you being clumsy. A tent is a testing ground for relationships, no small wonder I committed to the last ten years with my wife during a period of trail building we shared at 12,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The thing is you have to develop compassion, empathy and the ability to communicate or you suffer. The best expeditions are the ones where you bring the best out of the people you share them with. No small wonder the National Outdoor Leadership School talks about and coaches “expedition behavior” and this is quoted as being something that transfers into all walks of their alumni’s lives.
The outdoors breeds grace especially under pressure. One of my pivotal moments as an outdoor instructor involved watching a pack float away while I had 10 students in a swamped boat. Realizing that I had no way of finding let alone retrieving the bag and being grateful that my charges were all accounted for led to a renewed drive to become even better at what I did. The thing was that a colleague whom I called across to saying, “Terry, I think we could do with some help” had no idea how challenged I felt at that moment and the kids thought it was just part of the adventure. Outward calm comes from lots of experience of dealing with duress, well either that or ignorance of your situation. It is rare that I witness drama (outside of relationships) among my outdoor friends and that is because through ritual they plan for most outcomes and they are used to dealing with unexpected situations as they occur.
One of my favorite quotes is reputedly from St Augustine who said “solvitur ambulando” “it is solved by walking”. When I have a decision to make my two favorite ways of gaining perspective are to either meditate or go for a walk. There is something about the cadence of placing one food in front of the other, especially when it is accompanied by the song of birds, the rustle of trees, fresh air and a view. We live in a world full of “stuff” and increasingly we are diluting our faculties by being constantly available to a barrage of drivel. The thing is we are often blinkered from seeing what is important because of the endless flow of unnecessary information that we have to sieve through. Going outdoors brings with it serenity and a space where we can focus on the important decisions. It is very liberating.
Nature also provides a great venue for practice. Styles of leadership vary with a situation and “playing” outside provides a place for seeing what works best as the consequences are usually immediate. For instance if I am walking in a safe and mellow venue and I start barking orders like a sergeant major running drills on a parade ground, inevitably the people I am shouting at will push back – my behavior will make no sense to them and they will tell me this in no uncertain terms. (This is unlikely to happen in a military setting and while the water cooler chat will be off the charts in the corporate world the leader may never gain the feedback.) Now if I use the same tactics in a high risk environment coming down from a technical summit amidst an electrical storm where my charges are scared they will probably thank me for being so directive. We need to play and practice with concepts and we need a response as to how well they work.
Finally, the rewards are incredible. When I am outside I want to lead if it is necessary, I certainly want to play my part to make something happen because I know how it feels when I reach that peak, pull that move or drop over that lip. The days of hardship melt away when I survey the view in front of me. The sense of satisfaction derived from sharing it with others is enormous. We do not need to talk, we know. This is not always the case in the office, so it is easier to learn the skills where there is plenty of motivation.