We are temporarily stopped at 17,500 feet on our way toward the summit of Pico De Orizaba in Mexico. I stand off from my team and slowly look across their faces as they sit huddled in space blankets, waiting out a storm. I know that as guide and leader, I am responsible for every one of them. The wind is blowing, the snow is falling harder, and it’s decision time. My decision. We've worked for almost 2 weeks to get to this point, and we're so close to the summit we can taste it, but a big weather front has just moved in. My initial plan was to wait out the storm for thirty minutes and see what happens. But within two minutes, looking deeply into each one of those faces, I know it's time to turn around. There's a mix of anticipation, cold, fear, excitement and the unknown in those faces. It’s painful to call it quits when we’re so close to our goal, and though some are disappointed everyone knows that retreating is the right decision. The mountain will always be there to climb another day, and the words of Ed Visteurs, a famous American Mountaineer, ring in my head. “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory."
Leading a team is easy when everything is going well. The team doesn't even need to be high-functioning to do well, they can just be lucky or in the right place at the right time. The true test of the leader is in times of difficultly, transition, and failure.
My story now moves from the top of that mountain to a meeting in the comfort of an office, with my partner at LEEP (Leadership and Executive Education Program). We are discussing our goals as an organization, and trying to define the unique ways in which LEEP takes on the challenge of pushing groups and individuals to become more competent leaders.
Why does LEEP combine the classroom with outdoor and indoor team activities? Why do we take groups to climb mountains, paddle rivers, or even just work their way through a maze set up in a conference room? How do we create the most effective and powerful learning environment we can?
Very early in my professional career I got connected with the outdoor industry. At the time, the idea of guiding people on adventures around the world was very appealing. What I didn't realize was that by choosing this career, I was deeply immersing myself into the psychology of interpersonal dynamics. As I observed people and teams in stressful environments, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how we, as humans, operate. And so it made sense that in order to understand others, I first had to understand myself, and how I operated in these situations. Over a period of years I put myself into increasingly difficult and complex situations to see how I responded, where I struggled, what I could learn.
Some of my most formative experiences have been on mountains, rock faces, and rivers. I continue to seek challenging situations to this day and they are some of my favorite experiences each year. I have guided outdoor trips for the adventure-oriented for years, but eventually delved into training, starting with youth and non-profit (adult) organizations. Though these groups were seeking team-building and other ostensibly non-adventure related skills, I started to see the similarities between the challenges that they faced and those faced by my adventure groups in outdoor situations. As I moved on to working with a variety of corporate groups, I started to realize that there is a common set of challenges that groups and individuals face, no matter their age or position. And even though they face these challenges in their work environment, the outdoors can be harnessed as a powerful training ground that allows us to put leaders and teams in difficult and sometimes uncontrollable situations. My experience as an outdoor leader allows me to put our teams into increasingly challenging scenarios where I can help with safety but I can't control the weather for them, or the ways in which their group will respond. It is in these circumstances that profound learning can take place. I have also learned that much of this learning can also be accomplished by giving teams difficult physical and mental challenges in an indoor environment, where success can only come when the entire team works together.
Our goal at LEEP is to provide high caliber leadership training along with training in other areas including customer service, process improvement, and strategic planning. Rather than focusing on just a classroom learning environment, we utilize experiential activities to simulate work dynamics. We have found that these experiential activities allow participants to have a fresh perspective on professional challenges, because they aren't tied to the emotional baggage of work. These exercises can be anything from a short session in a conference room to a multi-day wilderness trip, depending on the goals of the team. These non-traditional and non-controllable experiences, and the deep learning that ensues, are a hallmark of training with LEEP.
Brett has been a consultant and experiential education for over 20 years. He was the Executive Director of the Questand Quest Professional Training at Bloomsburg University (www.buquest.org) and is also a Principal Partner in LEEP (www.experienceLEEP.com). His expertise revolves around leadership in remote, difficult and dangerous environments.