Leadership is incredibly complex, yielding thousands of books, blogs and TED talks on the subject. Studying leadership delves into neuroscience and simultaneously flirts with feel-good quackery. Hard science, social science, philosophy and yes maybe even spirituality are critical to understanding leadership and becoming a great leader.
Despite its complicated nature, I believe that leadership is simply about striving to live a life worth living. Aristotle used ‘virtue’ to describe something doing what it is supposed to do- think a bridge holding traffic without collapsing or a knife cutting well. A virtuous human leads the life a human should lead. People of virtue are worth following. Of course, humans cannot self-define what we are supposed to do, because we did not create ourselves. Nonetheless, to me a good life/leader looks like a kind heart, strong will, and mastery of decision making combined with talents and skill to bring the best out in other people. A good life should foster joy and purpose, and thus to me these two things become a leader's mandate.
We have constructed all kinds of artifices and false expectations around life and leadership. Perhaps for this reason, humans have turned to the wilderness in search of truth for millennia. Imagine Jesus wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, or Thoreau hand shaping planks for his Walden cabin. We find solitude, perspective and quiet happiness in the outdoors. This is the perfect place to start figuring out virtue- how to lead others with joy and purpose!
In the mountains, I learned to value the journey over the destination. It turned out that the summit alone was not worth a 96 hour often physically miserable expedition, but the little joyful moments along the way were! On my yoga mat I learned the power of embracing other people’s energy and kindness. “The light in me acknowledges the light in each of you, namaste.” Slicing across silky waters on a paddle board, I learned the power of poise and patience. Clinging to rock walls, I found out that exerting too much energy would wear me out and cause me to fall, whereas relaxing and focusing on my breath allowed me to divert all my power to its best use. Mountain biking opened the world of ‘flow’ to me. As I blissfully glided from banked turn to banked turn in Port Gamble forest, I realized the importance of focus and mindfulness in my leadership. When we approach these experiences with purpose and an open mind, time in the outdoors rewards us with profound personal insights. Cairn Leadership is about harnessing quality coaching along with these experiences to move people toward becoming great leaders. Examples of time outside cementing important life and leadership lessons will follow in future blogs.
These moments of intense fear, joy, peace and focus have shaped me into the leader I am today. No classroom exercise or PowerPoint, not even the most enthralling book could have pushed me through this journey. Scholarship and books of course have importance, but the human brain learns through experience and emotion. We reinforce and better understand these primal lessons that wilderness and adventure provide for us through logic and analytical thought. At Cairn Leadership Strategies, we strive to balance intuitive, experiential and analytical learning through coaching, reflection, and outdoor experiences.
This approach works for several reasons. First, it is fun. Not like trust falls on a weekend retreat, but reaching the summit of a mountain by pushing through your boundaries fun. Finding joy in a surprise waterfall or song birds waking you in your tent fun. Deep and fulfilling joy that centers a person fun. When we have fun, we will persevere, and honing leadership takes perseverance. The adventure aspect motivates us to enjoy becoming better leaders.
Taking time to become more self-aware and solve problems in the ‘wilderness’ also opens a world of creativity. By leaving our comfort zone and stepping away from daily demands of email and management, we can allow external insights to bolster our strategic approach and leadership. Often my best thoughts come while I run, hike, or ski. What better space could exist to coach leaders! By eliminating myopic focus on a problem, we can arrive at the optimumal solutions and paths forward!
Time outdoors provides solitude and perspective. For a great read on solitude, check out Solitude and Leadership by William Deresiewicz (theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/.) Bottom line, our best thoughts do not generally come first. They take time and concentration to mine out from the depths of the buzzing world around us. Perspective comes from gazing up at powerful mountains or from watching a dragonfly. A friend told me he loves the mountains for their sincerity. They are both unspeakably beautiful and deadly. When we travel into the wilderness, we become part of something obviously larger than ourselves. Survival becomes a common purpose. We thrive together, and we can take that community back to our boardroom or organization. When we watch a dragonfly hover over a pristine lake, we see something worth loving, something worth protecting and believing in. We can take that feeling back to how we treat the people who rely on us as leaders.
For these and many other reasons to follow in future blogs, I deeply believe that connecting with whatever our wilderness might be makes us better people. Better people live virtuous lives and make better leaders. Better leaders create communities of joy and purpose. I think we can all get behind more joy and more purpose in our lives. That said, let’s get outside!