But I would walk 2,160 miles...

Background

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.

Communication

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.

Leadership in transition

We appear to be without great leaders, who display some combination of strength, values, charisma and success.

We have lost a number over the past period - Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is difficult to think who their successors might be.

Perhaps this is because our notion of a great leader has taken a beating over a period of time.

Barack Obama has been a disappointment, although he started with expectations far beyond what any leader could deliver.  

Angela Merkel is a competent administrator who carefully builds relationships and alliances.  

The Presidents of Brazil, Argentina and Chile are all women and compare very favourably to the generals and dictators of 40 years ago.  

But I doubt any of them will ever be described as great.

In business, we have watched carefully since 2008 as institutions and economies have staggered if not collapsed.  Much of this was driven by leaders who were praised and lauded at the time, but were found to be wanting.  

A few have had their knuckles wrapped and their baubles taken away.  Very few have been help to account for their actions.  

It is clear that regulation and the political process appear to be powerless.

We are now rightly sceptical of such leaders and the institutions which bred them.  

In the absence of a major war we are thankfully absent any military leaders of public stature.

Those who do hover into and then out of the public view, look and sound like public servants in uniform rather than military leaders.  For the moment, that is no bad thing.

In religion, the global stage has been empty for some time, although Archbishop Tutu remains a personal hero for his courage, firebrand oratory and great good humour.  

Pope Francis is interesting in any number of ways.  

He publicly and openly acknowledges the challenges facing the Catholic Church in language which is surprisingly frank; is modest in his approach and lifestyle; is focussed on the poor; is putting in place a number of structural changes which may turn this decrepit and deeply flawed institution around; and Francis is admired by many.  

Pope Francis will need to remain in the spotlight to prove that he and the Church are making progress. 

The Economist captures this well in a recent tongue in cheek article.  

We have paid a high price for the "great leader" and the "long awaited saviour".

Perhaps the time is right for modest but very determined, self-effacing leaders who avoid the spotlight and get on with the job at hand.  

Tim Cook rather than Steve Jobs.  Angela Merkel rather than Nicolas Sarkoszy.  Shinzo Abe rather than Junichiro Koizumi, although I miss the rock and roll style.

The lonely leader and the great man model of leadership is over.

The team leader, which assumes active and engaged followers, and the leader as casting director, carefully selecting and nurturing talent, is upon us.  And how very exciting.

From here to there.

Hiking and Organisations

I hiked the 2160 mile Appalachian Trail and, whilst poking along through the woods, thought of many things.  

One of the things was the connection between two of my obsessions - hiking and organisations.  

I eventually got this in to a presentation which was alright on content  - some insights about the challenges of long-distance hiking, organisational strategy, leadership and teams - but poor on impact.  

Frankly it was boring to look at and to read.

I have been struggling to find a way of presenting this material in a more appropriate manner for some time.  

I discovered Prezi.com recently and this is the result - Hiking and Organisations

From here to there.