As I work though Tim's process, I'm reminded of a camping story from my younger days. I'd like to share it with you because it illustrates an important aspect of leadership that is often overlooked: Leaders will spend a great deal of their time in uncharted territory, where decision-making looks a lot different than it does in the project management office or a board meeting. In that uncharted territory, metrics, reports, dashboards, and plans may not be of much help.
Here's the story...
My camping buddy had a Forest Service map of the Desolation Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. She'd been to where we were going before, but never through her own navigation, although she was very good at navigating. We drove up there from San Francisco, parked at the end of the road (where the map said there was a trailhead) and took off from there on foot. It was around April, and we soon found ourselves hiking cross-country on bare hillsides covered with a few inches of snow. "This is not the trail I remember," she said.
We had the plan (map), it was an official document, we followed it, and in a half hour we were lost. At that point, we could have tried to make the plan work, by hiking back to the car and the road to try to find the trailhead.
Did I say we each had a 30 lb. pack on?
We decided we'd keep going. A one-hour hike took three, and we reached a beautiful camping area near an alpine stream among towering evergreens just before sundown. My friend said it looked like it was in the same neighborhood as where we were going, but it didn't look like exactly the same place. We were tired, it was gorgeous and safe, so we camped overnight.
We woke up the next day rested and thrilled by the surroundings. We went on a leisurely hike, hoping to get the lay of the land, when we happened upon two hikers who showed us the trail back. And after a few more days of leisure and luxury out in the wild, we headed back without incident. When we got back to the car, we inspected the map and found it was dated 25 years earlier, at a time when the road had not extended as far as it did now. And so we had our explanation.
You might think the lesson I took from this experience is to read maps more carefully, but that's not it. We never read maps perfectly, they are frequently wrong, and sometimes they just don't make sense when you get there.
I took two lessons. The obvious one is that you have to be capable of going cross-country when your plans don't work out. You have to value awareness, judgment, and perspective, and be prepared to use them all to make sound educated guesses in the absence of facts. You also have to accept that collaboration results in better outcomes than individual expertise.
The subtle lesson can be found in the vividness of that trip in my mind even now, and the nostalgia I have for it. A hike on a trail to a campsite in Desolation Wilderness is pretty darned nice. But that same hike over unfamiliar ground when you're lost and the sun is going down – well, that heightens the experience immensely. I was more attentive for that whole trip, and even now I can connect with that attentive frame of mind on every outdoor experience I have. The value of this second lesson to me is priceless.
Have you had any experiences as a leader where the plan "broke" and you were on your own? I'd be interested to know how prepared you felt at the time, and what you took away from your experience.