On my trips there was a predictability of what the students learned and where. One example: at about day ten of a thirty-three-day expedition group dynamic issues would surface. I’d see journal entries such as, “I hate my tent partner. He’s a slob.”
When I suggested they confront the schlump the response was, “But then they’ll hate me.”
To which I’d respond, “Let me get this straight. This person is driving you crazy but you’re afraid to confront them because they might get upset at you. How will that make you worse off than you already are? Besides, they may accept the criticism and try to improve.”
Another example: A student leader who thinks they’re a Marine Drill Sergeant which is fine in the Marines but doesn’t work well with community college students. One slightly older student leader once remarked, “This leadership stuff requires finesse. When I was a foreman of a construction crew, if someone didn’t do what I wanted I just hit ‘em over the head with a 2 x 4 and that usually got their attention. I can’t do that here.” (Thank God.)
Typically, we did a hike on day seven that would cement their navigation skills, build their confidence, and reinforce the challenges of leadership.
To this end we let students lead the group on a trailless hike. Frequently it was up St. Regis Mountain from Fish Pond deep in the St. Regis Canoe Area. For the experienced it is a straightforward hike. For the novice it is more challenging. Everything seems to look the same and determining exactly where you are is like figuring out where you are in the funhouse hall of mirrors: If you didn’t constantly pay attention, you were doomed.
The staff would select a student scout to lead the way and the hike up was always successful. They’d summit to spectacular views and newfound confidence in their navigation skills. For the trip back down, we selected a different scout so another student could gain experience and confidence. That too usually went well…except on one memorable occasion.
On this day the student successfully navigated her way down and before we knew it, we were on the shore of Fish Pond. There was only one problem – the group didn’t know if our camp was to the east or to the west. The student leader, Elise, huddled the students as they tried to determine which way camp was. They studied their maps, looked out on the pond, and as is typical of novices, tried to make the scene meet their expectations rather than read the lay of the land. Nine students thought camp was to the left, but Elise was adamant that it was to the right. Exasperated, Elise exclaimed, “I tell you…it’s this way,” pointing her outstretched arm west.
The nine students refused to listen to Elise. To Elise’s credit she didn’t strike off on her own, but instead went along with the students. And off the group went to the east with the staff keeping their mouths shut. Were we going the right way? The staff knew but weren’t going to say. After twenty minutes we came to the east end of the pond. Camp was nowhere to be seen. The students, finally recognizing their error, retraced their steps and found the campsite.
As we always did, the next morning we debriefed the experience. One of the staff asked, “Why didn’t you believe Elise? She was right.”
So why didn’t they believe her? Here’s why: Even though it was only a week into the course, Elise already had a reputation for stretching the truth. In the first week, she bragged about her experience, although it was nonexistent. She told stories that were unbelievable, for a good reason – they were total fiction. So, by the time the students came down from St. Regis Mountain and arrived at the shore of Fish Pond Elise’s die was cast. She was so used to exercising the art of honesty avoidance that when she finally told the truth, no one believed her.
Now we come to the essence of leadership, credibility. An example of a leader who lost credibility and as a result, his life is Henry Hudson. In looking for the northwest passage, due to his misreading and mistreatment of his crew they mutinied. As a result, they forced him, his teenage son, and seven crew members into a shallop and let them fend for themselves in the middle of James Bay never to be heard from again. Henry Hudson, a great navigator, lousy leader.
And no one ever had greater credibility than Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. What made him a great leader? He put the welfare of his men above all else. He focused on confidence, hope, collaboration, and courtesy. And he was a great role model.
Even today, a hundred years later, Ernest Shackleton is used as the quintessential example of great leadership.
I believe building credibility is about being a good role model. Or to paraphrase Robert Fulghum, don’t worry that your kids never listen to you. Worry that they are watching everything you do.