SGIM Forum

President’s Column

Leadership Lessons from the Backcountry

We have never been truly lost, only temporarily misplaced. The positives far outweigh the challenges. This can happen in the backcountry and in our professional lives. Consistently question your assumptions, be willing to reconsider decisions and define your goals and then seek a path that gets you there, even if it is less well-worn. And, take time away and off the grid, however you define it. It is good for the soul.

Every August, Rob, my partner, and I go backpacking. It is the one time we truly disconnect—no cell phones, no internet, no e-mail. Just us and the woods. Ten to twelve days on the trail completely disconnected. We have been doing this for so long that even my patients ask, starting around June, when I will be gone. My colleagues, both close and afar, my CEO, and my chair start asking in about May—where are you and Rob going this year on your “walk in the woods?” We are so disconnected on these trips that in September 2001 we didn’t find out about the events of 9/11 until the Friday of that week.

Backpacking is simple—all you have to do is walk, eat, sleep, and stay dry and warm. There is ample time to think, reflect, talk, and reconnect. Rob and I often joke that there is no better test of teamwork, or of a couple, than being out in the wilderness together. We each have days when we are feeling stronger or less strong. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We have roles—when we get into camp, Rob starts the stove, gets water, and hangs the bear rope while I set up and organize the tent. That said, we can be flexible based on the situation—hailstorm coming in = all hands on deck to set things up and get sheltered. In many a reflective moment on the trail, it has struck me how these experiences and lessons learned in the backcountry apply directly to our professional lives, as both informal and formal leaders.

Leadership lessons from the backcountry:

  • Sometimes you need four pairs of eyes (and you only have two);
  • Just because you have a clear path, it doesn’t
    mean you are headed in the right direction.
  • If you know the direction you are headed, you
    can get there even if there isn’t a clear path.
  • No decision is a decision.

Sometimes You Need Four Pairs of Eyes (and You Only Have Two)

Several years ago, we were dropped off to start our hike by someone who assured us that he knew exactly the trailhead that we had intended. It was only after approximately two hours of hiking that we realized that we didn’t actually know where we were. We had to question our assumptions. We had a map, but the location we assumed we were on the map was not actually where we were. We stopped, drew on our map and terrain reading skills, and quickly realized that we had been working off faulty data. Once we realized where we really were, we started out again and quickly found the originally intended trail.

When we realized our mistaken assumptions, I said, “sometimes you need four pairs of eyes.” Multiple perspectives are important: sometimes, you don’t have all of the relevant viewpoints, and there are dangers of not questioning the assumptions that have informed your decision making. How often have you been in a situation where you or your team are having difficulty solving a complex problem and feel stuck? You, or you and your team, keep trying to get to a solution and end up effectively going in circles.

Applying this lesson from the backcountry, a potential approach is either to bring in fresh eyes to consider the situation or, as we did, pretend like you were starting fresh and question all of your assumptions, effectively bringing to the situation the missing “pairs of eyes.”

Last year, we were backpacking in an area that gets very few visitors. We were trail finding for much of the trip. The following two lessons arise from that trip.

Just Because You Have a Clear Path, it Doesn’t Mean You Are Headed in the Right Direction

At one point on the trip, after bushwhacking through downed trees and questionable trails, we came across a clearly delineated trail. Relieved that we had finally found a passable trail, we turned left and kept hiking. After about half an hour, we paused and asked, “Is there supposed to be a stream to our left”? We took out our map and compass and realized that we were headed exactly opposite from our intended direction. We had been fooled into taking the clear path, when the correct direction was the unmarked, little-used path.

If You Know the Direction You Are Headed, You Can Get There Even If There Isn’t a Clear Path

From there, we kept a close eye on the map and the compass, relying on these tools rather than relying on a clearly marked trail. In fact, the more clearly obvious trail in this section would have taken us about three miles out of the way.

The professional life application from these two lessons is that we first need to set a direction and be confident in that goal and then figure out the path to get there. If we start down a path because it is the well-worn and “easier” route, we need to make sure that it is taking us where we want to go. We need to clarify the problem we are trying to solve and confirm that the proposed approach solves that problem before we proceed. I see this often in my professional life, when we start working on a solution before we agree on the problem or destination. I also see this when we continue with one approach because that is how we started, without stopping now and then to check our map and compass to make sure that we are still going in the right direction. When we are hiking, we start each day with reviewing the goal destination and the plan, and then checking in regularly. We have a rule that anyone can question whether we are headed in the right direction. Imagine if our professional teams functioned similarly.

No Decision Is a Decision

We borrowed this lesson from Touching the Void,1 a book that tells the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, his climbing partner, who face tremendous challenges after disaster occurs on their descent from scaling a 21,000-foot peak in the Andes. Joe Simpson writes, “You’ve got to make decisions, you’ve got to keep making decisions, even if they are wrong decisions. If you don’t make decisions, you’re stuffed.”1 Our shorthand version: “No decision is a decision.”

On one trip many years ago, it had rained nonstop for most of the trip. On what was supposed to be our last night in the wilderness, we arrived at our campsite and began our usual ritual of setting up camp. After five days of nonstop rain, everything was at least damp if not downright wet. As we got into our sleeping bags, Rob asked me, “Is there any way that you will be warm tonight”? I could have answered, “I’ll be OK” (the “no decision” equivalent). Instead, I answered, “Nope”. We had a decision to make—do we pack up everything and trek eight miles out to the car in the dark and rain or do we stay the night, knowing that we would be cold, and hike out in the morning? Neither option was particularly appealing. Weighing our options, we packed up and hiked out. As I apply the “no decision is a decision” lesson to my professional life, I think about the times when we accept things the way they are, even if they are the equivalent of spending the night in a cold wet sleeping bag, and not taking the initiative to make change, to question the status quo and to take action to effect change. Not taking action is the equivalent of making a decision—it is the decision to keep things the way they are. Or, as is attributed to Walt Disney, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

You may be under the impression that we get lost in the backcountry often or often have unpleasant experiences. We have never been truly lost, only temporarily misplaced. The positives far outweigh these challenges. This can happen in the backcountry and in our professional lives. Consistently question your assumptions, be willing to reconsider decisions and define your goals and then seek a path that gets you there, even if it is less well-worn. And, take time away and off the grid, however you define it. It is good for the soul. As Simon Yates wrote in Against the Wall, “Ultimately we have to look after ourselves, whether on the mountains or in day to day life…that is not a license to be selfish, for only by taking good care of ourselves are we able to help others.”2


  1. Simpson J. Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival. Pearson Education; New York, 2009.
  2. Yates S. Against the Wall. Vintage/Rand; New York, 1998, pb.


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