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“Oh, My Swollen Toes”, Leadership Lessons from my week on the Appalachian Trail – Part 2

2014-07-10 19.13.35Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in an era, to think that what was standard “back then” must still be standard today. We think this because we believe really smart people had it all figured out back then (translation – it’s not possible someone today could actually be smarter than we were yesterday, thus it’s impossible anyone today could figure out a better or different way).

My toes, in particular my left big toe, paid the price for such shoddy (and arrogant) thinking.

This is how it happened. A couple of months before our trip my son, MD, and I were reviewing our equipment list. He mentioned having found a good deal on trekking poles, implying I might want to buy some as well. I told him, with serious conviction, “I’ve never hiked with trekking poles before. I’ve always used just a simple walking stick and it has worked pretty well”.

Now honestly, I was also thinking to myself “the only people I’ve ever remember using trekking poles were old people and wimps. And since I’m not old nor a wimp I sure as heck wasn’t going to be using them.” (I was also having doubts about my son’s manhood).

I should have realized the first day I was in deep trouble when I was both one of the oldest hikers and the only one without trekking poles.

You see the developers of the AT must have liked to hike up and down mountains because we walked up and down mountains multiple times a day. We rarely walked on flat ground; it was always up or down. As a result I quickly began to experience toe jam (toe jam is where your toes are constantly being jammed into the front of your shoes when going downhill) resulting in swollen toes and later, as I experienced, losing your toe nails.

By the painful third day it finally dawned on me why everyone was using trekking poles. Trekking poles break your downward steps. They take the pressure off your feet (and knees) helping to avoid toe jam among other injuries. Suddenly I saw all these young hikers, including my son, not as wimps but as smart and pragmatic, and I, in turn, was the aching, old fool.

So what’s the AT leadership lesson in all of this? Never assume that what worked yesterday is still the best option today. Be humble enough to believe that people are as smart today (or smarter) than we were yesterday. As a result it’s highly likely that methods have improved or new technology has been developed today that solves the problems we experienced yesterday (like toe jam). If we can embrace this reality about yesterday and today, our toes will be happier, and we’ll be better leaders.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I have suffered this injury at least a dozen times from my feet sliding forward inside of basketball shoes and downhill ski boots. The only mountain terrain hiking I have done was in and out of the Grand Canyon, and summiting the Grand Tetons. I did not have any poles. In the Grand Canyon I wore running shoes (soft). On the Grand Teton, the guide told us to lace our boots loose on the way up (to let heel/ankle flex), but very tight on the way down. Now I know why. Thanks, Michael.
    BTW – the Teton guides were decades older than me, so it was easy to accept their advice. 😉

    July 29, 2014

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