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Leadership Lessons from a Walk in the Woods

Jim Ice, EdD -

Historically, I am not a hiker, but was recently invited by some friends to join them on a hike along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHT). This scenic trail, located about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pa., winds through fields of ferns and deep forest, and provides some truly breathtaking vistas. I could share with you stories of us conquering physical challenges or the tall tales told on the trail, but instead I want to share with you a few observations I never expected to gather from a hike in the woods.

I have been teaching leadership theory and techniques for over 20 years, but what I observed over this weekend I consider a “master class” in applied leadership.

Our group was small, only five of us. Most of us were weekend warriors and were more likely to be found on a golf course or couch than in the woods. Chuck, however, was the exception. An unassuming man of unimpressive stature, he is an experienced hiker. He spends most weekends on the trail somewhere, often traveling several hours from home to try a new trail. No one appointed Chuck our leader, nor did Chuck seek the role, but before we took even one step on the trail, he was preparing us for success. His actions demonstrated leadership in action. Here are a few of the leadership lessons I learned from Chuck.

Plan for the Journey

“Start with the end in mind” is a popular saying, but it is perhaps never truer than when planning for a trip into the wilderness. The end in mind is a safe return – and therefore the planning must consider each potential obstacle you might encounter on the journey and define ways to avoid or address each. This planning impacts what you will put in the pack you carry on your back. Chuck shared his experience of the recommendations to ensure our safety and well-being on the trail, always aware of the weight each item added to our backpacks. He recommended individual items (e.g., sleeping bag, socks, walking poles, water) and made lists of the group items we would need (e.g., cooking supplies, tent, food). Recognizing our individual fitness and experience levels, he also divided the group items across the group. Equal distribution was not the goal, but loads were distributed based on capability. These loads were readjusted during the trip based on individual performance (i.e., weariness), always with an expectation of sharing the load.

We also relied on Chuck’s experience to help us plan the trip. The LHT has some very steep climbs, one right at the southernmost end of the trail. He recommended we start at the northern trailhead and move south, knowing that this would be an easier route for us as novices.

Application: A good leader provides insight into what will be needed for the journey ahead. If it is a new project launch, for example, a good leader helps each member understand what he or she needs to bring to the project. Good leaders also realize that it is maximum group efficiency that counts, not an equal workload. There may be times when one team member can carry more of the weight, while at other times that load will need to be shifted to another. Additionally, careful consideration of how to launch the project journey will allow the group to experience the excitement of quick success while building the stamina for obstacles yet to come.

Set the Pace

When we hit the trail, Chuck took the lead. The paths through the rocky terrain of the LHT are narrow, so we typically walked single file. Chuck set the initial pace for the group. As an experienced hiker, he set a challenging pace. He had no desire to leave anyone behind, but his vigorous pace set the expectation that this was no leisurely walk in the woods. I fear if I had taken the initial lead, we might still be on the trail today. Right from the start, he set an expectation that we would push ourselves with a pace that raised the heart rate and broke a sweat. I am sure he could have gone faster, but he understood our capabilities as a group. Chuck would slow pace to allow us to take the time needed to climb a significant hill safely. Once we conquered the hill, he slowly increased back to the previous pace. When the weight of the packs and the weakness of our knees started to slow the group, we stopped and rested, but not so long that our old bodies preferred rest over continued movement. When we started again, Chuck took the rear and another hiker took the lead. The pace was now a little slower but not by much, as the new leader tried to emulate our earlier performance.

I noticed that even from the rear, Chuck was still influencing the pace. Rather than pulling us along from the front, he was pushing us along from the rear by keeping close, sometimes very close to the last hiker in our little chain. This encouraged us to keep a pace that kept Chuck out of our back pocket. He also periodically reported for us the time and distance traveled, encouraging us to meet our declared goals.

Application: Too many leaders think their responsibility is to always take the front and set the pace. Good leaders know that it is their responsibility to demonstrate the expectations for the pace of the team (i.e., set the initial pace out of the gate), but that pace must be adjusted based on the obstacles encountered and the well-being of the team. When leaders set an impossible pace or consider it weakness to slow down, they can demoralize or injure the followers. The wise leader remembers the old adage “the view only changes for the lead sled dog” and so gives others the chance to lead. They understand that encouraging (pushing) from behind can also ensure positive momentum.

Use the Signs along the Trail

For many trails on public lands, someone has carved the path and marked it with a “blaze.” A blaze is a brightly colored rectangular marking, typically on select trees and rocks along the path that help you navigate the trail. Sometimes the trail may open into a large opening, and without spotting the yellow blaze, you could easily lose your way. Following the markers confirms you are headed in the right direction. Trailblazers are those who go in front and “blaze the way” for future travelers.

Each mile along the LHT you will find a small stone obelisk mile marker (e.g., mile 12). Chuck shared a hikers’ tradition of tapping each marker with a hiking pole as you pass, to acknowledge your progress and grant luck for the next mile. At significant mile stones, every 10 miles, we stopped and took a photo of the group around the marker. Chuck used these markers to both illustrate progress (“we have already passed five today”) and encourage endurance (“only two more markers until our camp for the night”).

Application: Some leaders are pioneers blazing trails for others to follow. Other leaders know how to recognize the blazes left by others to point the way. This way, whether a leader is leading from the front or the rear, the team sees and follows the signs blazing the trail in front of them. Some journeys are long. Too often leaders think and talk only about the end destination. Excellent leaders find appropriate mile markers along the path (e.g., significant project goal accomplishments, phase completions, customer growth milestones) and take the time to acknowledge and celebrate these achievements. Milestones not only make the journey seem shorter, but serve as an opportunity to re-energize the group for the continued journey. They also help the group measure progress and focus on the next goal on the journey.

Tell me a Story

Telling stories is how humans communicate. We tell stories about our weekend, our families, our future goals and our work. Stories entertain, inspire, teach and even distract from the pain and weariness of a journey. Our trip was filled with humorous stories of previous trips and conquests that did not always turn out as planned. As we passed the time, we built relationships. Chuck shared a story of his encounter with a mother black bear and her cubs on the Appalachian Trail. He asked us how we might react and explained how this experience changed how he prepares for a hike, now including bear spray (pepper spray for bears) on his belt.

Application: Along the journey, a good leader uses stories and conversation to encourage, entertain and teach. We tell stories to our children to help them learn about their ancestors, life experiences and pitfalls that lie ahead. Great leaders use stories of company history and heroes, customer successes, and even great failures to encourage and teach the travelers. A great story can inform action, build excitement, encourage the heart, build rapport and challenge performance. Leaders are storytellers.

Support the Fallen

On day two of our trip, about 12 miles into the day’s journey, I started to notice pain in my left foot. At the 14-mile marker, I was in trouble. I could feel the blisters building, and each step became more painful. When I notified Chuck I was needing to stop, he quickly came to my aid. His next action surprised me. He sent the others ahead while he helped me treat the injury. He charged them to get to the campsite and make preparations before we would arrive. When I removed my shoes, my feet were a mess. Chuck helped me administer first aid and apply a short-term solution (moleskin patches). As he traveled the next two miles with me, he explained how I could avoid these issues in the future (i.e., wool socks and special attention to my feet each evening).

Application: A great leader not only recognizes one who is falling behind, but takes an accountability to help support that individual in his time of need. There are many reasons why folks fall behind on teams – some personal, some emotional, some skill gaps, some motivational and some political. The great leaders not only bring aid, but are willing to walk alongside for a while to ensure the individual has what he needs to get through this difficult time. They do not allow the entire team to stop, but send others ahead to continue the journey while they administer aid. They also take these moments to provide not only comfort but instruction.

My trip through the beautiful Laurel Highlands taught me about nature, about myself, about hiking and, thanks to Chuck, about the practical applications of leadership.

Learn more about leadership and innovative ideas for developing your workforce. Visit Carlow University’s College of Professional Studies.

About the Author: Ice serves as the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Carlow University. For more than 30 years, he’s served as an advisor to global business leaders on issues of talent strategy, workforce alignment, strategic planning, employee engagement, change leadership, building learning organizations and equipping leaders for success.
Contact: Jim Ice, EdD