Lessons from outdoor challenges

It is so easy to intellectualize about leadership, risk taking, and team communication when you are safely in an air-conditioned training room. So I decided to lead leadership retreats at the world-famous resort, Miraval, to integrate their outdoor challenges into my curriculum.

When you are focused on the activity, your primal brain takes over. There’s no room for theory or academic concepts. You are stripped of much ability for strategic thinking. Your body thinks you are in danger and whatever is deeply entrenched in you comes out, through your words, actions, or both. Sometimes you’re not even aware of what you said or did until the debrief. You get to look at your true beliefs and abilities so you can work at changing them if needed.

In order to be the best facilitator I could be, I decided to put myself through the outdoor challenges I was going to ask my participants to experience.

I and two other women met Chris, our leader. He was an affable, insightful outdoor man, who had previously run Outward Bound experiences.

We began by all being blindfolded by Chris. Then we were put one behind each other as Chris led us around the grounds. While we could talk to each other, Chris was mute. The leader behind Chris had to explain what was happening so we could walk safely and comfortably over our route.

Susan began as our leader. She was communicative and confident, but when she led us down some stairs, I found myself faltering because I wasn’t clear on what to expect. I asked, “Susan, can you give us an estimate of how high each step is, and let us know when we’re on flat ground again?” When she did, it was easier to follow.

Periodically, Chris would change the leader. I was the last to take my turn at the head of the line. By this time, we had run out of pavement, and were being taken down a hill with crudely made steps, full of rocks. I had to descend carefully, while announcing to my followers what was coming up for them.

The woman immediately behind me, Sally, seemed particularly inept at this exercise. Although I would announce “Six-inch step down ahead” she would shriek as if surprised when a step later she reached this point. She was extremely cautious, often saying “hold on” even through easy turf. I found myself getting irritated with her, and having to force myself to be patient.

Part way through, it occurred to me that perhaps I wasn’t leading in a way that made her comfortable. So I asked both women “What could I do differently to make it easier to follow? Am I giving enough details? Anything I should do differently?” They couldn’t come up with anything.

Finally, when we reached the bottom of the hill, Chris let us take our blindfolds off. Looking back, I saw how steep the hill was. However, I was never frightened because I could feel the strength in Chris’ hand as he led us downhill, and I felt him stop when something difficult was ahead.

What did I learn?

  • If a leader isn’t as effective as she could be for you, ask if she could modify her style.
  • Ask how my leadership style was working. Too often when our followers don’t react as we expect, we blame them. Perhaps we first need to see if they need to be lead differently.
  • Once you’ve experienced a leaders caring and competence, trust that they will take care of you. If you are always blaming or second-guessing them, you’ll get nowhere.

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