The weather report was calling for heavy rain beginning about midnight. It was our 5th day on the AT, and my son, MD, and I were standing outside one of the many hostels along the trail. MD’s plan called for us to keep hiking further up the trail and stay at a rustic camp spot. But because of the weather report we had to decide – stick with the plan and keep hiking, or stay at the hostel?
As I mentioned in my last post, MD had a well thought out plan for our trip. He knew where we would camp each night, how far we’d walk each day, where we’d leave our car and how we would get to the starting point. He was even thoughtful enough to send me a copy of the plan before we left so I’d be fully in the loop.
But unfortunately I didn’t look at his itinerary very closely (actually not at all) nor did I do any research about where we’d be hiking, what places we’d pass, even what the names of our planned campsites. There was no excuse for me not having a clue about this section of the AT, with MD’s written plan and all the details about every section of the AT readily available on-line and in books. So there I was standing in front of the hostel, with no clue, trying to help us make this decision.
Late in the day, after deciding to keep hiking, we found ourselves stumbling around in the light of dusk, trying to find this remote campsite. I was once again little help because I just wasn’t familiar with the details of the trail or the plan.
In other words I didn’t do my homework as good leaders (and followers) must do.
You see, when leaders don’t do their homework they can’t contribute to their team’s decision quality, potentially hindering success. In our case, it all turned out fine because of MD’s good plan. But what I did by not doing my homework was lay all the responsibility for our trip’s success on my son’s shoulders. That wasn’t right or fair. Because I was a part of the trip I owed it to him to have done my homework so when the circumstances called for it I could help us make the best decisions possible.
The lesson learned? Good leaders and followers must do their homework so, the situation calls for it; they’re ready to help their teams make the best decisions possible.
The AT has a very simple trail marking system. It’s a white line painted on trees or posts along the trail. So hiking the AT requires nothing more than looking up for white markers, looking down so you don’t trip over any rocks, and looking around at the incredible beauty along the way. Not much daily strategizing if you have a good plan as my son, MD, did.
You see MD spent a lot of time planning out the trip. He created a great itinerary for my week with him as well as his three weeks on his own. He did a lot of research, talked to people who had hiked the AT, and reviewed his thinking with others. All this work fed into a great plan.
So while on the trail we spent little time figuring out where we were going each day, or calculating how far we’d walk, etc. The plan was good and unless conditions changed there was no reason to spend any time rehashing it. Instead we just got up, packed our gear and followed those white markers to our next camp site, enjoying the trail and the people we met on the way.
It reminded me of the temptation we have to continually want to rehash and revisit well thought out plans. People like to arm-chair quarterback, to debate and to continually question where a team, department or organization is going and how they’re getting there. Some people also have a high need to change, tweak and continually adjust a plan, in an effort to find perfection.
But when you have a good plan, this additional work brings little value to the process or end results. Too often it keeps people from focusing on the immediate, day-to-day work, the plan requires. And, more importantly, the extra work distracts us from the joy, adventure, and relationships that the journey of making the plan a reality brings.
I knew better. I knew the two most important pieces of gear I would use on the AT were my shoes and my pack. With everything else I could make some compromises, but not on shoes and packs. They had to be right. If they weren’t right my 7 day experience would be painful and exhausting. And unlike tents or stoves, shoes and packs have to fit correctly. In other words, you have to assure they’re customize to your body and walking style to function well. For instance I bought and broke in a pair Montrail shoes months before the trip. They were high rated trail running and hiking shoes which also fit me well.
On the other hand, I borrowed my pack from a good friend. It’s a quality pack but I never bothered to have it fitted correctly. I only began trying adjusting the straps while standing anxiously at the trail head getting ready to embark on our adventure. Not a very smart move considering my friend is taller and broader shouldered than I am.
So I spent the first four days desperately trying to adjust my pack so it sat properly on my hips and shoulders, all the while each of my shoulders, in turn, became sorer by the hour. Finally, I rigged up the straps with some string I brought (the Boy Scout in me) to hold them in relatively the right position. In the end the pack never quite fit right even after all my MacGyver moves which lead to a very sore body.
What’s the leadership lesson in all this? Well there are two, and you already know what they are. First, make sure you and your team have the right gear to do their job. It needs to be quality gear designed specifically for the work to be done. And second, the gear must meet the needs (style, environment, etc.) of the individual using them. The gear needs to be as personalized as possible. If you follow these two lessons – quality gear, personalized for the person using it – then work will be less painful and you and your team will be less likely to leave the trail early.
Generally, the principles and values I learned as a Boy Scout have helped me in my life. But sometimes, unfortunately, I’ve confused the habits I’ve formed as a result of a lifetime of practice with the actual principles and values I’m committed to, as I did in getting ready for the AT.
In particular, the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared”, is burned so deeply into my psyche that I now, out of habit, over pack for every trip. For example, when I go to Canada fishing I always pack two (and sometimes three) of everything piece of essential gear just in case I, or someone else on the trip, loses or breaks something. This has worked for me because I don’t have to carry any of this gear on my back.
But that’s not the case with the AT. All the food and gear I brought with me I had to carry. That meant those extra meals, shirts, pants, socks and underwear, the extra flashlight and bottle of stove fuel (and if I would have had room – extra shoes, hat, and a solar charger) were dead weight I carried every one of those 70 miles. I estimated it all added up to an extra ten pounds (or about 25% of my total pack weight).
Now ten pounds may not sound like a lot when one wants to “be prepared”, but in reality it was like carrying a gallon of milk, in addition to the rest of my gear, for 70 miles up and down mountains.
You see, with so many people on the trail, with towns, stores, hostels and roads dotted all along the path, the best way to be prepared is to know where you can get something if and when you need it. It’s why some people hike the AT with only 25 pounds of gear (a little more than half of what I was carrying). So the hard truth was, if I was truly prepared like a good Boy Scout, I would have known this about the AT and would have packed much lighter.
So what’s the lesson in all this? Do not confuse a motto, value or principle with its application. Memorizing a motto (Be Prepared) is easy. Learning a single way to apply it (over packing) is a mindless habit. But leadership requires the wisdom to know when a context is different, because different contexts requires different applications of those timeless mottos and values.
So how do I know this? Because, for seven days, I felt it deeply in my hips, shoulders, knees and back.
Sometimes 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.
- “What was I thinking carry all this food?”
- “What was I thinking having three changes of clothing when I’ve only worn one?”
- “What was I thinking not having trekking poles?” as my toe nails started to fall off because of toe jam.
- “What was I thinking not have my pack fitted and adjusted properly before I left?” as my shoulder ached.
- “What was I thinking not taking a closer look at my son’s well thought out itinerary and his packing list?” when I couldn’t remember where we stayed or planned to stay.
- “What was I thinking not being in better shape before the trip?” when I was so winded climbing up those mountains.
Now the beauty of backpacking is the thinking time as you walk (I was too winded to talk much). It was during these daily hikes that I’d find myself asking the “what was I thinking?” questions. And each time I asked these questions I also reflected how these AT experiences could speak into my life and leadership back home. The reality is I had some “ah ha” moments that have led me to make some significant changes when I got off the trail.
So join me over the next few posts as I share some of these lessons (and the stories behind them) with the hopes you’ll also find some useful nuggets for your leadership journey.