My nephew, Cab, spent last year’s fall semester of school in Patagonia in a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) leadership program. I know, tough life! The goal of the semester and the NOLS leadership program is to spend a semester learning hands-on what it takes to truly be a leader; making tough decisions, calculating risk, handling adversity, inspiring leadership in others, and the list goes on.
The program lasted from September through mid-December, and for that entire time, he was completely cut off from the “real world:” no phone, no text, no internet and not even a letter to let us know where he was or how he was doing. To add to the challenge, the conditions were tough: Half the semester was spent on a glacier with wind chills well below freezing; the second half was spent day-in, day-out sea kayaking, carrying all his own supplies, and living on only what he could carry. To say the least, this was probably more than a leadership course; it was a true study in the human condition.
When he returned home, I was anxious to hear about the trip, what he had learned, and how he had changed. After giving him the congratulatory hugs, kissing him more than any 19-year-old wants to be kissed by his aunt, and wading through all of his photos and funny stories, I asked him to go for a hike so we could talk, and I could learn what he had gained from his experience. As I listened to him, I saw a different kid in front of me; his passion and depth of understanding had transformed him from a teenager to a leader.
The list of his accomplishments and lessons learned was long and varied, but it was more how he learned than what he learned that caught my attention. See, the counselors took the role of advisor and supporter, allowing the leader within to emerge (or not) from the group. They created the culture and set the tone, giving the group advice and thoughts on how they should lead, but that, for the most part, is where their interference stopped and where the group’s struggle to lead began. While the group was given plenty of information, the actual decision on what to do and how to do it was ultimately theirs and so were the rewards and consequences of their decisions. It was in the rewards and consequences that the learning truly happened, and the leader within ultimately emerged.
Let me give you an example: Three of the best lessons that Cab walked away with both in terms of what he learned and how he learned them are as follows:
Easy Now – Hard Later
This is my favorite, thus the title of the blog. This lesson is, as a leader, you have decisions to make and work to get done. Whether you do it now or whether you do it later, the decisions and choices are still there. However, doing them now is often EASY while putting them off until later can result in them being HARD, harder than they have to be anyway.
Cab learned this one quickly and the hard way. While hiking in severe conditions, the counselors said that, despite the cold, the intense hiking combined with carrying 50 pound packs would mean they would work up a sweat and their clothes would get wet. To avoid rashes, athletes foot, and small rub burns, the counselors suggested they take their socks off at night and let them dry out. Now, this sounds like a smart idea, and it is, but you have to remember it was freezing. The first night, Cab elected not to do this, which was Easy Now. The result was a painful, long and very uncomfortable hike the following day. With small blisters and a rash forming on his feet, he learned the meaning of Hard Later.
This is a great lesson. Think of the times as a leader when you knew an employee or a client was a challenge, but you procrastinated on a decision. Did the delay make it any easier? No. Putting it off took what could have been easy now and made it hard later!
Prepared and Flexible
Before the course started, all participants were advised to arrive in shape both mentally and physically. This was not an adventure where you could fake it until you made it. Luckily, this is one lesson that Cab paid attention to, but unfortunately several of his team members did not. Getting in shape mentally and physically before Cab entered NOLS made sure he was prepared for conditions and events that were beyond his comprehension and gave him the confidence to be flexible and to understand that sometimes his value to the group was as a leader and others as simply a strong member of the team.
Those in the group who were not prepared actually became a drain on the group both in terms of the extra support and help they needed, as well as their lack of confidence and their fear. This impacted their flexibility which hurt morale and the groups’ overall ability to achieve.
So I ask: Are your leaders prepared? Do they invest in training and development, beyond what you provide? Do they need to build confidence? What is their commitment to growth, and their flexibility to teach when called to do so, and learn from others when the situation requires?
Enjoy and Align
The last lesson was never told to Cab, but rather one he figured out on his own through a strong role model. One of his guides was from India, and he was Cab’s favorite, because Cab said no matter what he was always happy. If the weather was really bad, he would laugh and sing through it; if the trail was tough, he would tell a story to distract the group; and when crisis struck, he would always look to find the opportunity and focus his energy there.
What Cab learned and began to practice was that, while you cannot control what happens, you can control how you react to it, and how you react impacts the team, the productivity and the overall experience. This information is vital in our Trust & Value Economy. And Cab learned that when he chose to enjoy leadership, no matter the conditions, and align himself with like-minded individuals, he had more fun, accomplished so much more and was more confident and proud of who he was and what he had done. He emerged as a leader who could not only excel at meeting a goal but inspire others to get there too and to go beyond their limits.
So I ask: Are these traits you look for in leaders? And as a leader, what type of leader are you? How do you handle tough situations and pressure? And how do you lead your team through it?
Again, this was an amazing experience, both in terms of what Cab accomplished and, more so for me, the innovative style in which he was taught to lead. This was so much more powerful than learning from the ‘masters’ best practices and top skills. Instead, he was given the skills to succeed, the support to try and the room to fail.
So I ask: How do you develop leaders? What is your leadership culture? Challenge yourself, challenge your team and create a culture of leadership that provides the skills, sets the tone and then steps back to watch the leader within emerge.