Wednesday, June 12, 2013

An Expedition's Journal: Sabbatical Leadership Lessons

Mike and I spent 5 days hiking and camping along the Duckabush River on the eastern slopes of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The five-mile hike into our campsite was a blend of delightful river-side stroll and grueling, lung-busting climb over the aptly named Big Hump. But the beauty of the scenery, the solitude, the long fireside chats, and the constant roar of the glacier-fed Duckabush made it all worthwhile.

Here's where we set up camp:

Here's a picture of Mike contemplating the river right beside our camp:

Here's a picture of the river where we stopped and had lunch on a lengthy dayhike into Olympic National Park on Sunday:

Here's what lunch looked like:

Over the five days, we shared the campsite and trail with a number of other people. The first night we camped next to a friendly gentleman who stopped over and chatted a bit. There was also a young couple and their son. The father was a former chef who shared his camping recipes with us. We met a couple of younger ladies who hiked another 5 miles past us, and out the next day, putting our plodding efforts to shame.

The second and third nights, we shared the campsite with Boy Scout troops. We almost thought we had the site to ourselves on Friday, but just at dusk a group of Scouts and their leaders descended the mountain and set up camp in the next site over. One leader came quite a bit later, setting his tent right next to ours long after we'd settled in for the night.

These scouts were considerate. They were polite. They were having lots of fun, but they kept to themselves. They respected their leaders. The man who camped right next to us apologized the next morning for being so close, while explaining that, in the dark, he hadn't been able to find a better spot.

Later that morning Mike and I hiked up to a waterfall, and soon the scouts followed along, where they engaged in the age-old game of "Throwing Large Objects Into the River." The leaders were actively involved, as well. They were obviously having fun together.

Eventually they headed back to camp, packed up, and left for home.

By the time Mike and I got back to our camp, another Boy Scout troop had arrived and set up camp. This troop stood in marked contrast to the first. They set up a city, commandeering most of the campsite. And the kids ran wild. They ran through our area, and through the camp of the younger couple with son. They stole firewood that couple had been collecting. They threw rocks at each other, narrowly missing the rest of us. They threw rocks into the river, splashing the young couple's tent. They screamed and hollered and played Tag all around us. They had no respect for anybody else; they were engaged in all sorts of dangerous horseplay at the river's edge.

And the whole while, their leaders totally ignored them. In fact, their body language made it clear they didn't particularly like these kids. There was no interaction between leaders and kids, except in the Making of the Campfire. The leaders made sure they showed the kids how to build a campfire: 4 feet wide, 6 feet high, doused in lighter fluid.

I know this is a little blurry, but here's a picture of the scouts. The orange smudge in the middle is there monstrous fire:

Keeping this fire going required a lot of lighter fluid. And a lot of wood. I think they used up all the wood available, leaving nothing left for later campers. But the kids were so impressed, they went and lit another fire about 20 feet away, in an unapproved fire pit. Which the leaders ignored.

Making all this worse was the fact that we were surrounded by evidence of the 2011 wildfire that burned in the valley for months. All around us stood the charred remains of ancient trees; the ground was covered in fallen trees and blackened roots. Still, the scouts kept fueling there fire with all the wood they could find, and copious amounts of lighter fluid.

Thankfully, they were gone the next morning. But we ran into the young ladies again, who shared that when they were climbing the switchbacks of the Big Hump, they found themselves dodging large boulders pouring down around them. The source? Those same Scouts, who were engaged in the age-old game of "Let's Roll Boulders Down the Hill at the Hikers Below Us!" Needless to say, they weren't happy with the scouts, either.

So Mike and I spent a lot of time talking about the two groups, and realized it was a marvelous lesson in leadership. Scout troop #1: Polite, considerate, fun-loving, good neighbors, friendly, respectful, honored the space of others. Scout troop #2: Rude, obnoxious, a danger to others, disrespectful of people and the environment, poor neighbors. And the most obvious reason for the difference was leadership. In the first group, the leaders were involved, they were interested, they were engaged with the kids, they seemed to like the kids, they were having fun with the kids. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, and even told us how they had hiked up here in their teens, and were glad to share that experience with the next generation.

In the second group, the leaders couldn't be bothered. They stomped around camp looking grumpy; one spent considerable time trying to find a cell phone connection. The kids ran free while the leaders stuck to themselves. I never saw those leaders smile, laugh, or kid around. They ignored us when we passed by their camp. They projected a message that said "this is the last place I want to be."

Leaders lead, whether they know it or not. Leaders set the tone for the group. People know whether you care about them or not. People will listen to and respect a leader who engages with them. Distant, aloof leaders create groups that run wild. In Friedman's A Failure of Nerve, he speaks of the way leadership interacts with the group in the same way the mind interacts with every facet of the body. Your brain is a long way from your toe, but your brain's presence is strongly felt down there.

It may be nothing obvious, but how you relate to your people has a strong effect on the overall health of the group. It's not just what you teach, but how you relate. If you're grumpy and distant and tell people you'd rather be elsewhere, they'll get the message and drift off. But if you let people know you like them, that you're glad to spend time with them, that you genuinely care for them, the group will be that much healthier (not to mention that much more pleasant to camp next to).

The leaders of scout group #1 - that's the kind of leader I want to be. Invested, involved, genuinely caring, sharing life with the people around me, happy to be on this planet with them.

Thus ends the first lesson of my sabbatical. Here's the waterfall where the first group were throwing things into the water, from that large ledge over my left shoulder. To be clear, I'm not grumpy in this picture. Just sore.