In just a few days now we’ll be headed north on a new adventure. My wife and I will be taking a four-day canoe trip through part of the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. As we made our plans, it struck me that there’s a lot of overlap between getting ready for our little adventure, and leadership preparedness when launching our teams on any new project. Here are four key things we’re doing to prepare, and how they might translate to help you lead your team on their next new adventure.
Into the Wild
The Superior National Forest is three million acres of lakes and trees along the border that Minnesota shares with Canada. It is famous for its untrammeled wilderness, pristine waters, and great canoeing. The six-day trip I took there with my son, brother-in-law, and nephew four years ago was unforgettable, and keeps coming up whenever the family gets together.
My adventurous wife clearly wanted to be on the roster for any subsequent trips. With no group plans in the offing this year, we decided to make a little trip of our own.
Like any big undertaking, to improve the odds of things turning out the way we hope when it’s over, it makes good sense to prepare as thoroughly as possible before it begins. Here are some of the things we’re doing, and how they relate to leadership preparedness on any new undertaking.
Making a List
I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, whether family camping growing up, 17 years of outings with the Scouts, or doing it the Army way for 26 years, so this trip isn’t my first rodeo. Our last trip north is still pretty fresh in my mind, but that doesn’t make me lackadaisical; if anything, it has made me more careful and cautious; I’ve done it wrong enough to know better!
It’s kind of like that Partridge Family episode I remember from long ago, when the men of the family secretly follow the girls deep into the woods as they go camping. They worry that Laurie and Shirley will need their help. Night falls, and the fellows find to their dismay they have forgotten to pack some essential items. In one scene, they beat on a can of beans with a rock because they didn’t have a can opener.
When the girls discover them, a bedraggled and famished Ruben utters my favorite line of the episode:
“We’ve come to rescue you. Do you have any food?”
Knowing my memory is likely to be faulty, I’m making lists. I started one from scratch, then referred to old lists, checked on-line for suggested packing lists, imagined various scenarios and what we’ll likely need, and added all those things to my master list.
Whatever the leadership situation, as humans, we have a built-in tendency to err; one way to compensate is though memory aids like checklists. It may be the best way to ensure we don’t end up with a can of beans in one hand, a rock in the other, and a sheepish look on our face.
Preparing for Rain
We’re close enough to the start of the trip now that we can begin checking the weather forecasts. It looks like three of our four days may include rain and possible thunder showers. We’ve talked about this possibility.
Of course, if there’s lighting, we’ll stay off the water and wait it out (deck of cards added to the list). But when I mentioned the possibility of it raining for hours, my wife’s response was perfect,
“That’s fine, we’ll just put on our rain jackets and pants and keep paddling.”
Physical preparedness is great, but mental preparedness is just as important. Thinking through how we’ll react when things don’t go perfectly helps us deal with tough circumstances when they arise.
The same applies to leadership preparedness. Everyone likes to talk about how it will be when things go great, but it is also wise to envision times when they don’t, and consider what options we want to have available when that happens.
We chose early June for our trip to avoid the worst of the mosquito season, but with recent heavy rains, word is that they are unusually prevalent already. I guess that’s why we have added bug juice and mosquito head-nets to our list. They may be the unofficial state bird, but that doesn’t mean we have to like them.
Remembering to Rehearse
A few weeks ago, I pulled the various bins of camping gear out of the garage and took inventory. It had been a while since either of us had been on an outing. Some things we had to replace or update. Then last Saturday, we rehearsed.
Together we pitched the new tent in the back yard to learn how it worked. We put our sleeping pads and bags inside and lay on them to get a feel for how we might use the space. Then we got out the stove and reminded ourselves how to light it, and practiced boiling a few cups of water.
Yesterday evening, we loaded up our gear and went for a walk on some trails nearby. My wife was borrowing a neighbor’s backpack, so this was a good way to make sure the fit was good. We made it fun, timing our walk to get us to an ice cream place just before it closed. This practice session closed with us strolling through our local town, packs on our backs, and cones in our hands. Perfect! It’s OK to make practice fun.
Any time leaders can test, rehearse, or practice a key task, it is a good idea to do so. The worst time to try to figure something out for the first time is when the pressure is on. It’s like one of my favorite old army adages:
All attacks take place at night, up hill, in the rain, where four map sheets join.
Leadership preparedness is about being ready for that moment.
Taking it Slow
As planned, our trip will have us hop-scotching from one lake to another to make a large, circuitous route up to the Canadian border and back. Hauling your canoe and gear out of one body of water, carrying across land, and putting it in another body of water is called “portaging.” We’ll be doing this several times each day, so it’s important to be organized and travel light.
One mark of experienced canoeists is how smoothly and efficiently they execute this maneuver. On that last trip to the Boundary Waters, my son and I shared a canoe; by the middle of the trip, we could execute a portage smoothly, efficiently, and even wordlessly. By then we had worked out who would carry the backpacks, the paddles, and the canoe, and what sequence we would follow.
I hope to achieve the same level of flow with my wife when we are out in the wilderness, but I have to remind myself that it will take time to get there, and the first few portages we should take as learning events. We’ll even swap duties from time to time – she said she wants to carry the canoe at least once as part of the adventure!
In the same way, leadership isn’t just about getting something done, it’s also about the transformation that occurs within the team and its individuals as they execute the task. In that sense, learning, training, and team building are always a part of the journey, and good leaders look for opportunities to make the team stronger along the way.
Leadership Preparedness – The Takeaway
Very shortly, we’ll be heading north on our Boundary Waters adventure. We’re both very much looking forward to it, and hoping for a wonderful time. But I like to think that we are also as prepared as we can be to adjust and adapt for the times when things aren’t so wonderful.
- We have our lists.
- We have mentally prepared for the great and not-so-great.
- We have practiced some key tasks.
- We’ll be taking it slow at first to build the team.
As with leadership in any context, if it involves humans or weather, something is bound to go off-plan somewhere along the way. That’s to be expected. Leadership preparedness is about being ready when it does.
When we get back, if there’s a good story to tell, or major lessons-learned to share, you can be sure I’ll post an update.
As for the mosquitos, if it turns out that bug juice and head nets aren’t enough, maybe we’ll just put on our rain jackets and pants, head out on the waters, and as my wife would say, “just keep paddling.”