Leadership Lessons From the Backcountry
Outside of my role as Manager, Learning & Evaluation at Vantage Point, I spend a lot of time playing in the mountains: backcountry skiing, rock climbing and scrambling primarily. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate over the years is how much a successful backcountry adventure has in common with a successful organization.
At Vantage Point I create and curate educational materials in the areas of governance, human resources, leadership, and capacity building: four areas that are critical to the success of a backcountry adventure.
Governance is, at its core, how a group of people organize to make decisions. In the not-for-profit world, it involves setting direction, providing oversight, and ensuring accountability. Likewise, we make similar decisions when planning and carrying out an expedition: Where are we going? What are our goals for the trip? What conditions might we encounter? How will we make decisions together? Backcountry travel, just like not-for-profit governance, involves making a series of decisions based on the best information available. This information often is imperfect or incomplete. What sets backcountry travel apart is that the decisions we make in the field can have immediate life-threatening consequences.
Let me pause here for a moment. I am not an adrenalin junkie. In fact, I look at an adrenalin rush as a sign that I’m doing something wrong. My first two goals for any adventure are first to come home safely, and second to have fun. A very distant third is to achieve whatever objective we set out for ourselves.
Clearly, good decision making is critical to a safe, enjoyable, and successful adventure. Unfortunately, there are many social and psychological processes that can lead us to unconsciously taking on more risk than intended. For example, summit fever (the desire to achieve the objective) can lead us to ignore an incoming storm, pushing us forwards when the safe option is to turn around. Having people around – either a large group (which makes us feel safer), or a special someone we want to impress – may subtly encourage us to ski a bigger, but riskier, line. These are just two of the many (unconscious) cognitive biases I learned about in my avalanche safety courses. While the courses did a great job of highlighting the biases, there was little discussion of how to overcome them. Being someone who always wants to know more, I conducted my own research.
The strategies I discovered for overcoming cognitive bias and making good backcountry decisions were eerily similar to what I knew about good leadership and organizational success. One of the most important decisions for a successful backcountry adventure is essentially an HR decision: selecting the right companions. So, what do we look for? Shared goals and expectations for the trip (alignment with the mission and values of the organization); the skills, experience, and fitness to achieve the objective safely (capacity and skill to fulfill the role); and most importantly, the ability to communicate openly and honestly.
In the backcountry, our safety depends on everyone in the group feeling comfortable enough to speak up. Pushing forward when someone is silently worried about their ability to get through a crux puts the group in a dangerous situation. Even on a guided trip where there is a clear leader, it’s important that everyone in the group is comfortable with the decision. Asking open-ended questions such as “what conditions are we seeing?” or “what should we be concerned about?” helps people voice their observations or concerns. Thoughtfully addressing each contribution helps people feel safe sharing again. The same leadership skills that enable us to create this dynamic in the backcountry serve us well in creating an inclusive and high functioning organization.
As the scope and complexity of our backcountry adventures increases, so does the importance of planning and capacity building. The planning required for an easy one-hour hike on a well-marked and familiar trail might be as simple as confirming when and where you will meet your friend and putting on your shoes and jacket. Planning a week-long helicopter-access ski expedition in glaciated terrain is far more involved. To name just a few things: coordinating flights, planning meals, gathering equipment and supplies, practicing glacier travel skills, and developing the necessary fitness. Coordinating who would do what to ensure we all arrived at the helipad at the right time, with all the necessary gear, required a significant amount of project management!
I didn’t expect that my backcountry adventures would lead to such insights, but people are people whether they are exploring the mountains or running a not-for-profit. Now, the sun is shining, the mountains are calling, and I must go.
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