This afternoon, Fletcher and I went for a hike along the Appalachian Trail. When your only companion has a canine brain, you think a lot. On this trip I couldn’t help but to begin thinking about leadership and the lessons that I could learn from my furry friend. Not all of them are lessons, some of them are things that I always knew or believed but were revived by today’s experience:
1. Starting takes Courage – Fletcher was a rookie AT hiker and this wasn’t the easiest of hikes. He was very tentative crossing the railroad tracks to the trail head. Once he got a good sniff of the trail he was good to go. We need to remember that we need this courage not only to begin to lead but most of us need courage every day. We are charged with some tough tasks. Some days I pray for courage and some days I just bull my neck and take their best shots. The important thing is to start.
2. Sometimes its OK to follow – My travelling companion was very cool on single track. He would pull me through clearings at a brisk pace. He was also very adept at finding the trail through some rocky terrain. I had hiked this section numerous times and knew how I wanted to go but there were times when it was more interesting and rewarding to see how he would conquer the trail. One of my basic beliefs about leadership is that you have to surround yourself with the best people and trust them to make decisions. I work with some tremendous teachers and I learn as much from them as hopefully they learn from me. They are leaders. My hope is that I give them the tools that they need and them let them lead me.
4. You have to be trustworthy in times of trouble – At times Fletcher would get very skittish. He’s a bit of a nervous dog. At these times he would walk so close to my ankles that I was afraid he wasn’t there because there was no pull on the leash. His trust was in me to get him to a place were he felt safe. This is not always the easiest thing to do. A leader has to build trust in the good times in order to be trusted in the hard times. Let them walk behind you if they need to until they trust themselves enough to walk beside you.
5. Sometimes you have to lead with a short leash – On this particular section of the AT the terrain is scattered with large limestone boulders and fields of smaller limestone rocks. Anyone who has hiked through Pennsylvania knows what I mean. Through-hikes have cursed it as the most miserable section from Maine to Georgia. The white trail markers are the only things that indicate that there is any trail at all. Basically you are walking boulder to boulder from one blaze to the next. Through some of these sections I had Fletch on a three foot leash. Not as punishment but as added guidance. When people who you lead are struggling they need to be on a shorter leash. You need to interact with them more frequently. You need to guide them through the pain. This is difficult because its so much more rewarding to interact with the people who are blazing the trail. Remember, they have already earned the longer leash or the ability to run free.
6. If no one is following you, are you the leader? – Probably not. Fletcher had this odd habit of looking back to make sure that I was following him. Specifically he would turn his head after he traversed a typically difficult stretch of trail. Almost as if to say, “Are you going to make it?” When things get rough in your organization you need to make sure that you haven’t lost your followers. In particular the core group of people who you trust and who trust you. Those people are your disciples. They will make sure the others aren’t far behind. If you lose them you are leading no one. Consider the opinions and thoughts of these people when you make plans to weather the storm. They’ll bring the coffee.
7. Leave the path sometimes – It is a cardinal rule of hiking to “Leave no Trace.” Not only does this mean cleaning up after yourself but it also means to stay in the trail in order to protect the living things that survive just off the trail. I always hike this way. The pooch at the end of my leash didn’t always like this tenet. He had a penchant for jumping on the huge, limestone boulders. It looked like fun but I knew my knees couldn’t take it. On the trail it is important to stay the course. In our work it is sometimes important to go in another way. Take a chance on something that you believe in. Go against the status quo. Great leaders know when to hold strong to the path and when to take a chance.
8. You can’t cross a chasm in two small steps – Fletcher knows this. When he came to a portion of the trail where it was rock to rock he would debate in his little canine brain the distance and decide whether to jump or to step down and back up again. These decisions are the big decisions that leaders must deal with. The distance across the chasm can be calculated by how far we are already behind everyone else and how important is it that we catch up or go ahead. Sometimes you have to take the leap and sometimes a step will get you there.
Funny how a walk in the woods with a dog can bring up all these thoughts. Funny how when your mind has nothing else to do but smell fresh air and take in the scenery how clear your thoughts are. My ninth lesson would be that: whatever it is that you do for relaxation, for mind clearing, for thinking without distraction, make a date with yourself to do it as often as possible.