Leadership Lessons From the Backcountry to the Boardroom
Five lessons of outdoor expedition leadership that will make you a better indoor leader
The Google team was stumped and their indecision continued to build. Should they hike the longer, easier way to the left and get drenched in a stream crossing? Or take a direct dry path which would involve some bush-whacking and then . . . who knows what?
All eyes went to the leader. In a moment that hung in the air, her eyes suddenly brightened and then she rhetorically asked the group, “Hey, WWGD?”—what would Google do? Google stood for entrepreneurship, creativity, and challenge. The decision was easy. They took the adventurous route.
Leadership learned in the crucible of the backcountry environment—unpredictable, challenging, and dynamic—maps directly to today’s business environment. The wilderness is an unparalleled venue for highlighting individual and team strengths and learning to compensate for shortcomings. Executives from Google and Timbuk2; students from Harvard Business School, the Wharton School, and the Kellogg School of Management; and even NASA astronauts and Naval Academy midshipmen have evolved through outdoor leadership programs that incorporate lessons of expedition leadership.
In today’s shifting organizational landscape, dynamic leaders are needed more than ever. By applying these five lessons of backcountry expedition leadership in your boardroom, not only will you be ready for your next wilderness expedition, but you will better manage your team in the workplace. Think of it as an MBA from nature.
1. Practice. Fail. Learn.
At NOLS we are devoted to disabusing our participants of the notion that they must be born with the “right stuff” to be leaders. We teach them that everyone has leadership qualities imbued in them, and that they can best leverage these qualities by learning and practicing leadership in a real—albeit carefully managed—environment where decisions have real immediate consequences. Research shows that you learn a lot more from failure than success. So don’t be afraid to fail, and learn from it.
2. Disconnect to Connect.
Modern day society and its distractions do not allow people to think through problems. The result? A condition called continuous partial interruption. “Electronic immersion without a force to balance it creates a hole in the boat, draining our ability to pay attention, think clearly, be productive, and creative,” writes Richard Louv, author of bestseller Last Child in the Woods and his new book dedicated to the adult version of Nature Deficit Disorder, The Nature Principle. Louv’s premise, which also lies at the heart of the NOLS philosophy, is that an environment free from distractions and the technological trappings of modern society will give you clarity, allowing you to be more resourceful and creative in your problem solving. So when you’re overwhelmed and befuddled, leave your iPhone on your desk, go outside for a walk to press that mental “reset” button. Or take your whole team outside for a teambuilding.
3. Lead From Everywhere.
Traditionally, “leader” evoked words such as “on top,” “ahead,” “above,” and “the boss.” Not any more. Over the 45 years of our school’s existence, we have seen the idea of “expedition leadership” take hold in organizations. Today, the person spearheading a project might have the “manager” title; but most often she does not. Leading from everywhere means taking any of four leadership roles. On a NOLS expedition, the designated leader is the LOD on the expedition. She takes responsibility for the group, determines how the group will achieve its goals, and guides the group toward its goals. The designated leader is supported and encouraged by active followers, who, unlike lemmings, participate actively in group decisionmaking by seeking clarity and giving appropriate input. Team members are also empowered to proactively help each other, creating peer leadership. And last but not least, individual team members are encouraged to exercise self-leadership by being organized, motivated, and caring for themselves so that they can also care for the group in any of the other three roles.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
4. They are not your minions.
Regardless of where you sit on your org chart, your employees are not your minions—they are your team. In order for any team to succeed, expedition behavior (or “EB” in NOLS lingo) is crucial. EB means cooperation, teamwork, effective conflict resolution, keeping yourself and others motivated, and getting along in a diverse group. In the wilderness EB might mean waking up early to cook your tentmates breakfast and coffee, never complaining (even in whiteout snow conditions and 30-degree-below-zero temperatures), or carrying a little extra weight to relieve a fatigued teammate’s burden. In the office it can mean the same thing. So if you drain down that last cup of coffee in the breakroom, make another batch, will ya?
5. Stuff Happens.
You can plan for every foreseeable contingency, but sometimes even Plans A, B, and C fall through as the proverbial poop hits the fan. On a wilderness expedition with NOLS, one of the most important leadership skills is tolerance for adversity and uncertainty (“TFAU” in NOLS lingo): enduring that storm with a smile, and being the paradigm of composure when you realize you have hiked five miles just to arrive at an uncrossable river and have to backtrack four miles upstream to cross. We utilize topographical maps with detailed routes marked on them, including where the group will expect to be resupplied and where the group will camp every night. But sometimes, weather, terrain, snowpack or any number of unforeseeable conditions thwart our plans. In the field, we tell participants to let go of things they can’t control, plan for things they can control, expect the unexpected, and when the unexpected arrives, not to panic. Problems only get solved with calm deliberation.
But don’t take it from me! Read how wilderness leadership lessons helped entrepreneurs like the founders of Netflix and Nantucket Nectars in an in-depth article we wrote for the Harvard Business Review here.