Learning to Lead With a Canoe on My Back

What determines great leadership? When does someone become a great leader? I’ve pondered these questions often as an I/O Psychologist and an aspiring leader. Here is my journey.

I started to see myself as a leader during an Outward Bound excursion. Outward Bound is a nonprofit that provides “hands-on” education in the most literal way – through outdoor adventures that are designed to test your resiliency. This group adventure was the Pathfinder Boundary Waters Canoeing & Backpacking expedition in Minnesota; basically, you pay $8,000 to suffer for 300+ miles in under 30 days. This “adventure” is brutal to the unprepared and forces the individual to build a strong will. To give it a better visual, you are balancing a huge canoe on your back or a huge backpacking bag, both weighing between 50-125 lbs.

During my time in the Boundary Waters, I was a source of positivity and motivation for the group. Luckily, I was already in decent shape because of a consistent exercise routine. Some of my group members were not so fortunate and were having a difficult time carrying their share. Doing well on my own developed me into one of the leaders of the group. I was someone people could lean on when the rough got…well, rougher, and as much as I could, I provided support physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We were a team and I wanted everyone to have an enjoyable experience.

We were not completely on our own; this Outward Bound course provided us with two leaders who were trained specialists and have completed this course multiple times. The goal of the expedition was to develop everyone’s resiliency and to develop leadership skills by rotation. Most of the time on the expedition, I found that sharing experiences and telling stories was a great module to get people motivated.

Pursuing these large goals is certainly more attainable with a team built around a belief, value, or concept. High motivation, success, and perseverance are common qualities of a leader. Good leaders are examples for the team. As I can quote from one of my class readings, “A compelling purpose energizes team members, orients them toward their collective objective, and fully engages their talents” (Hackman, 2012, p. 437) To be a leader, one must understand a multitude of solutions; to reach a goal, leaders provide paths for followers to trek. Great leaders teach people how to be good leaders.

Following are some lessons learned both from my Outward Bound experience and from my I/O Psychology classes at Montclair State University:

Great Leaders Have Empathy

Collaboration is key in sharing a piece of the burden. We often picture leadership as one person leading a group of people. But leadership researchers often don’t see it that way. Prominent researchers have stated, “…leadership is not sometimes collective but is fundamentally collective.” (McCauley & Palus, 2020) Understanding other people’s needs for love, care, and compassion are the ingredients of the receptive process. During the difficult times in the Boundary Waters, being receptive to people’s needs meant a great deal when the pain and fatigue seemed unbearable. The expedition had daily distance goals, grinding tasks, collaborative responsibilities, and arguments. I learned that teamwork could be a battle of compromise – what kind of sacrifices is the team willing to make for success? Risking timely resources is a shared responsibility. Creating a concise system is communicating the process, responsibilities, requirements, and goals of everyone. As developments progress, leaders need to monitor the well-being of the group.

Great Leaders Direct the Team Toward a Common Goal

Experienced leadership provides direction – a vision of happiness, a goal to strive for. Effective collaboration begins with employees who believe in their leader’s capacity to respect their ideals. The probability of success is determined by a team’s strategic intent. Employees must feel comfortable communicating their expectations and leaders must act accordingly. Learning to communicate intent is a dance; it will take time for team members to understand who a leader is as a person. “Within this perspective, leadership behavior is seen as team-based problem solving, in which the leader attempts to achieve team goals by analyzing the internal and external situation and then selecting and implementing the appropriate behaviors to ensure team effectiveness” (Fleishman et al., 1991). Misinterpretation is bound to happen, quickly clearing any misconceptions helps prevent problems from cascading.

Great Leaders Build Relationships

Convey a love of the process; good leaders love to put effort into relationships. Good leaders can serve as a bridge for their team – providing resources, support, and coaching. For people to develop interpersonal skills, some competencies like self-reliance are critical in sustaining an individual’s well-being. “Development refers to the cohesiveness of the team and the ability of team members to satisfy their own needs while working effectively with other team members” (Nadler, 1998) Great leaders take calculated measures to flip the leadership script and let team members lead the story.

Receiving and giving feedback is essential in improving, communicating, and developing relationships. Leadership is an ongoing development that requires careful consideration of the big picture; creating the necessary space individuals need to achieve success. “To develop as leaders, people need both the challenge of the unfamiliar and the support of the familiar. The unfamiliar encourages them to stretch; the familiar helps them stay open to what is possible by validating their strengths and reinforcing who they are.” (McCauley, 2006) In some circumstances, leaders must make unpleasant decisions, even more, critical is communicating decision feedback.

Great Leaders Empower Others

Leaders create opportunities for people to add value. Everyone wants to feel valued; one of the easiest ways to develop this feeling is to give followers resources to add value. Problems of fairness and justice often get in the way of followers truly feeling valued. To approach justice and fairness, open communication requires respect. Teams will respect leaders that reciprocate respect. For efficient teamwork, autonomy builds the groundwork for respect. If leaders give their employees the power to succeed, employees will in turn give their leader the power to lead. Power is a privilege and is usually left open to chance; good leaders must actualize the power of giving privilege. Cohesive groups know that each individual matters, that power can be distributed and that taking the lead is a shared responsibility. The parts influence the whole and the whole influences the parts. Balancing these ideas is the fuel for growth, mental health, and success.

Great Leaders Balance Various Perspectives and Personalities

Leadership is a sacrifice; leaders must mold themselves to be the necessary shape for the task at hand. “The effectiveness of any given leadership behavior is likely to be influenced by the followers’ perceptions of their relationship with their leader, (Gottfredson & Aguinis, 2016) such that followers with good relationships with their leader will respond more positively in terms of performance to a given leadership behavior, compared to followers with poor relationships with their leader.” The responsibility to maintain relationships for the common goal is ultimately left to the leader. A balanced team is meant to be a mixture of talents that can be calibrated to produce yielding results. Understanding how to respond to conflicting personalities is a skill leaders must have. During times of stress, resiliency is key in sustaining a team; building or keeping a team together is much more difficult than breaking one. Some people want change, but there is a cost of changing mindsets, beliefs, and predispositions. Tensions may thicken to a degree of discomfort, leaders must know techniques to diffuse various kinds of situations: examples can include humor, trust, and acknowledgment. Leaders can suspend their ego for the greater good of the group. Individuals must take care of themselves first before they can take care of anyone else. People tend to forget that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. Ultimately, people want to feel like they belong.

In conclusion, learning to lead is a process of trial and error, testing what works and what fails. Leadership requires courage because reputations, livelihoods, and when out in the woods, lives are at risk; failure can affect the well-being of many. Stress, money, and time can be at stake. Conveying these risks into a story can stress the importance in a way that’s easy for employees to understand. For some personalities, leading is more of what is done than what is said. Leadership can be aligning the team, developing interventions, or reflecting the progress of various goals. Pausing to reflect, “Are the actions and behaviors I am currently taking, truly reflecting the communicated goal?” Taking time to learn, develop, and exercise best practices can enhance the experience of the whole. Making sure to have contingency plans for when the unexpected does happen.

To encapsulate these ideas, people generally build off experience. When venturing into the Boundary Waters, if you were good or bad at something, your team members would expect you to be that way for the rest of the trip. That wasn’t always the case. I found that over the course of my trip, some of my group members surprised me with unexpected strength, sharper leadership skills, or a different attitude. My experiences at Outward Bound changed me as a person and as a leader. I wrote this poem to reflect on what it was like to lead in the wilderness:

Eye of the sun. Lead me to the light, for I wait to see. Love, free at last, held by the
teeth of the mountain; passion to push past the pain of every step. Lend me your infinite
wisdom, guide me to a higher goal. Through failure, fear, and confusion, show me my
imagination’s truth. With so much at stake, sacrifice my victories for humility. Let me live

Photo used with permission by Ian Lee

Ian Lee is an I/O Psychology Master’s student at Montclair State University.


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