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.
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.