The Appalachian Trail stretches 2,160 miles or 3,476 kilometres from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine in the USA.
Those who complete the Trail, typically taking 4-6 months and travelling from south to north, are known as thru-hikers and will hike through three seasons and 14 States. About one in four make it all the way. I celebrated my thru-hike as part of an important birthday.
The simplicity of Trail life is reassuring and allows quiet contemplation about people and organisations.
In this blog I seek to make a link between the lessons I learned from long-distance hiking and what this might tell me about leadership in organisations.
Strategy, planning and execution
We need a shared and meaningful long term objective - in this case, Katahdin - which sustains us through difficult and challenging times. Put simply, the objective is the mountain.
We need a tactical and strategic outlook - the former to get us through each day in good shape, the latter to focus on our objective, even when it’s more than 2,000 miles away.
The routine of eating, hiking and sleeping requires planning: all food is carried, water found and purified, and sleep happens if intermittently in three-sided shelters or tents along the Trail. The logistics can be exhausting, particularly in baking summer temperatures or spring and autumn storms.
Ordinary people are not
And it becomes clear that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, given the motivation and opportunity. It is amazing how overweight hikers carrying massive, towering packs quickly become highly efficient hiking machines, in part through necessity.
Experience, insight and practice
Equipment and experience is very important, but will not get me to Katahdin. Some luck will be needed along the way to deal with illness, boredom, lack of money, exhaustion, animals and humans, bears and rednecks.
Few hikers are experts, particularly in the first months. Those who claim they are, are not and are dangerous, in part because they lack self-insight. There is a need to learn quickly, through experimenting, to fail and move on with no time for recrimination or blame.
I just about set a camp site on fire when struggling with my cooking stove and converting it to a flame thrower. I recall the experience every night for the next six months.
Do a series of small things very well and focus on detail. It is tempting to save time by not purifying river water, but water-borne diseases will quickly bring my Trail experience to an unpleasant end.
Celebrate success and focus on strengths
It’s helpful to know what success feels like and celebrate it at every possible moment. Never assume somebody knows they are doing well when they are exhausted and fraught. Always focus on strengths - weaknesses are evident to all, particularly the individual involved.
Find a means of communication which works, keep it simple and use it or lose it. Do not rely upon technology. It doesn’t work in the mountains, provides a false sense of security and adds unnecessary complexity.
Leadership and healthy teams
Small groups of people in particular circumstances can work well without a leader. Outside this, a leader is required and necessary although the role and requirements change over time. Self-appointed leaders often fail and leave the Trail.
The team needs to be open to strangers, those in need and new ideas, but closed when threatened or required to protect weaker members. It should be robust enough to cope with extreme experiences and rapidly changing membership. It also needs to find a way of sharing and storing experience for mutual benefit. Reliable information about sources of water is invaluable during dry summer months, as indeed is insight about sources of cheap pizza and beer at any time of year.
Help others when required and sometimes when not required - it’s good to care for others because they will likely care for you. Be sensitive to the smallest of signals and act quickly, but be ruthless when necessary - moving at the speed of the slowest team member is not always good enough. From early October, Katahdin is covered in snow and ice and the weather does not wait for slow hikers.
Self-insight and humility
Get to know where your physical and emotional limits lie, even when you have moved beyond them. Watch and listen carefully to the body’s tiniest messages - a slight rubbing on the heel quickly turns into blisters which quickly become infected.
Understand your centre of balance and recovery rate whilst applying the same insights to others. Food, sleep and rest are essential and the absence of any of them cannot be negotiated away or ignored.
Be humble in the face of nature and all other major challenges otherwise failure beckons.
From here to there.