The Stink Test: Why Leaders Need to Listen to Their Noses

During a long trek deep in the woods, we were faced with a mini-crisis that could have ruined the trip.  But by applying the “Stink Test” we averted disaster and finished the hike as intended.  Here’s what the “Stink Test” is, and how you can use it to make smart decisions as a leader.

The Stink Test

Anticipating Trouble

It was day four of our five-day, 50-mile backpacking trip.  We were nine Scouts and adults in the process of chalking up another 12-miles of hiking on the ridge lines of the Appalachian Trail.

Our planned tenting site was by a shelter just a few miles ahead, and we were looking forward to getting there.  The day had been going great, but I had a concern.  It seemed that everyone we met on the trail seemed to be headed to the same location to camp for the night.

The problem was that camping was only allowed in a few designated areas.  It’s first come, first served.  What if all the spaces were taken before we got there?  The next designated area was five miles further down the trail, and we were definitely ready to stop.

During a rest break, I had a chat with the Scout who was leading the hike.

What to do?

We talked about how good leaders try to envision what is going to happen next, anticipate the next few steps, and prepare.  Then I asked him, “What does the future look like to you?”

Good leaders visualize, anticipate, and prepare! Click To Tweet

He imagined a limited shelter site rapidly filling with hikers and tents.  It was a weekend, so he added even more hikers to his mental picture.  Soon, space was running out in his mind, too.

OK, good thing to think about.  Now, what should we do about it?

Pretty quickly he came up with the idea to send a few Scouts ahead who could hike fast, check out the area, pick the best site, and hold it for us before they were all taken.

He asked for volunteers, and did a good job of telling them where they were going and what they were supposed to do when they got there.  In minutes, excited with the new mission, three Scouts took off down the trail.

About an hour later, we arrived at the intended destination, and our lead Scouts were waiting for us.  The report was not good.

No Room at the Inn…

There were already two troops of Scouts on the site, plus a bunch of weekend hikers.  All the good spaces were taken, and we’re going to have to double up with some other people.

My vision of a secluded site where we could set up in relative isolation, cook our last trail meal together, and talk about the deeper meaning of our week of backpacking was rapidly fading.

I met one of the Scoutmasters, who told me the same thing.  “There are only two sites, and people in each.  But there’s room for you to probably squeeze into one of them.”  Which one did we want to pick?


The forest is a big place.  There can’t be only two places to move in.  That doesn’t make sense.   Let’s look again.

We dropped our packs by the shelter and split up to search.  Some followed an upper trail past some tents, while others followed a lower trail through the brush.  We agreed to go out farther than before and see what we could find.

It wasn’t long before the two Scouts on the upper trail shouted out that they had had something.  They found a clearing that had a fire pit with logs around it, plenty of space for tents and hammocks, and was isolated from the growing mass of humanity.

Perfect.  It was just what we were looking for.

The Stink Test

As a leader, one of your jobs is to think before making any decisions.  That’s what happens in between the inputs you are getting from your senses, and the response you decide to put into action.

You may have heard that leaders are “responsible.”  Everybody knows that.   But break that word down a little differently:  Good leaders are “Response-able.”

Good leaders are response-able. Click To Tweet

You will get lots of inputs about your situation, the weather, the people around you, and problems that seem to crop up.  But good leaders don’t just blindly react to their senses.  They think about what is happening and choose a response that makes the most sense.  They are “response-able.”

One of my old commanders used to call this the “Stink Test.”  Does it smell right?  Does what you are hearing and seeing make sense?

Or is it like that carton of milk in the refrigerator – the date is still good, but the odor is a little off?

Pay attention to that nose of yours.  If it is setting off alarms, even faint ones, do a little more homework of your own before making a commitment.  Especially if you are just working on hearsay.  Go check it out for yourself; verify; make sure.


We moved into camp and set up, and things were wonderful.  It was a perfect spot for our last night on the trail, and we were looking forward to cooking up a nice meal together.

Then we got word that the spring down the hill was dry.  If there was no water, we would have to move another four miles down the trail to get some.

Yet every other spring and creek we had crossed that week had been flowing just fine.

Something smelled funny…

Question:  When has applying the “Stink Test” saved you from disaster?

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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