What did your early experience with outdoor leadership and experiential education teach you that you later applied to product work?
Short answer: On a NOLS climbing expedition in Alaska I learned a lot about leadership-- staying positive, taking on risk, being a servant leader, and problem-solving.
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This question from a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) alumni caught my eye, as I am currently skiing in Idaho.
When I was twenty, I took a year off from college. In May, I participated in a NOLS course. Our twenty-person class attempted to climb Mt. Hayes, a 14,000-foot peak in the middle of Alaska. It took a week to ski to the mountain’s base, and the entire expedition lasted three weeks.
During the forty-mile ski to the base of Mt. Hayes, we learned a lot about the two most dangerous aspects of the trip: avalanches and crevasses.
The avalanche risk was fairly low— we avoided climbing in new snow or midday when the sun’s warmth kicks off avalanches, ice, and rockfalls.
The bigger danger was crevasses. These are hundred-foot deep trenches that stretch across glaciers and are hidden by a thin layer of snow. Because of the potential danger of falling into a crevasse, we skied up the glacier in three-person teams, attached by fifty-foot ropes. If someone fell into a crevasse, we were trained to yell “Fall!” then dive to the ground, digging our ice-axes into the snow. The person who fell into a crevasse was left hanging from a rope attached to their partners. To get out, s/he would climb up the rope using small climbing devices called jumars.
One day, Jim, a New York City cab driver looking for adventure, dropped through the snow’s surface. Someone yelled, “Fall!” and we all hit the deck. When we peered into the now exposed crevasse, Jim dangled from his rope, fifteen feet below the surface.
Crevasses are cold, dark, and wet, and Jim was clearly overwhelmed. Panicked, he was unable to climb the rope. We all looked at the NOLS instructors, but it was obvious they wanted us to solve the problem independently.
After an awkward silence, I suggested, “Let’s tie four rope teams together. Twelve of us can pull him out.”
We attached the rope teams, and on the count of three, we pulled the rope hard.
The result was comical: Jim came flying out of the crevasse, and we dragged him along the snow on his face for ten feet before we stopped pulling. When he dusted himself off, he pulled out a credit card and yelled, “Get me a helicopter — I’m out of here.”
Jim eventually recovered from the ordeal.
The inevitable challenges
My overwhelming memory of the trip was how much time we focused on “life maintenance” — digging latrines, melting snow to make water, drying wet boots in our sleeping bags, and clearing snow from the roof of our tent every two hours during storms. Worse for me, I had ongoing stomach issues from a bad burrito I had the night before we started the trip.
After a week, we got to the base of Mt. Hayes. We planned to start up the mountain the next morning, but that night a storm hit. Gale-force winds and heavy snow forced us to stay in our tents for four days and nights. We all suffered cabin fever, stuck in our claustrophobic, three-person tents.
Finally, at dawn on the fifth day, the skies cleared. When we looked up, we could see the top of Mt. Hayes, 8,000 feet above our campground.
As the camp came to life, we watched our NOLS instructors engage in a private debate. They were clearly discussing whether we would start the climb. After thirty minutes, they announced that the climb was a no-go— there was too much new snow, and we didn’t have enough time to wait for the snow to settle.
The mood that day was sour. We had spent a week climbing to the base of the mountain, followed by four days in our tents, and now we had to abort the climb before we took a single step up the mountain. We needed something to raise the team’s spirits.
The No-Talent Show
I dug around in my backpack and pulled out my secret weapon: a Snickers candy bar. After two weeks of freeze-dried food, it was worth its weight in gold. What could we do with it? After a conversation with my rope-mates, we hatched a plan.
The three of us stood up and announced, “Tonight, we’re going to host the first ‘Mt. Hayes No-Talent Show.’ The winner will receive a lavish prize — a Snickers Bar.” For the next few hours, we built an amphitheater in the snow at the side of a hill. As the sky dimmed, we lined the edge of the stage with candles.
The acts were hysterical. My favorite was the NOLS instructors singing their version of a Muddy Waters song, accompanied by harmonica. The song began,
"I gotta story here that’ll make you cry,
Twenty different reasons why.”
They sang twenty verses, one for each member of the team. I still remember the verse they wrote for me:
“This East Coaster has a whole lot of class,
But all he ever talks about is what’s coming out his ass.”
At the end of the evening, it was no surprise that the audience awarded the prize to the NOLS instructors. Each relished their one-fifth of a Snickers Bar.
The next day the team was in much better spirits. We began the trip home and had some fun along the way. We did some big wall ice-climbing, hiked some moderate slopes to ski fresh powder, and on our last evening, the instructors performed their song again, accompanied by whiskey shots.
Conclusions: Leaders lead
The trip was nearly forty years ago, but I have applied many of the lessons from that trip over the course of my product leadership career:
Be positive. As a leader, you can lift or sour the team’s mood. If the team’s not optimistic, the odds of building a successful company fall dramatically.
Be a problem-solver. Building a product requires the never-ending ability to solve technical, management, creative, and financial challenges.
Be a servant leader. Through NOLS, I learned to influence by serving others' needs. I engaged in team problem-solving and motivated teams by giving them autonomy.
Be a leader. By definition, leaders lead— you can’t be a follower. You need to be comfortable embracing risk as you suggest ideas that may or may not work.
Scaling companies is a lot like a mountain-climbing expedition. As a leader, your job is to communicate an inspired vision of the future that gets teams marching on the same path and then help the teams to navigate the inevitable challenges.
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