7 Leadership Lessons from Climbing Mountains

7 Leadership Lessons from Climbing Mountains

The pictures have been flooding my facebook timeline and my instagram feed all week. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just search for #Philmont in one of your favorite social media platforms.

The staff at Philmont Scout Ranch is ready. They are about to be invaded once again by Scouts from around the world. Lives will change as these young men and women ascend the Summit of Scouting. Philmont does that to people. It teaches you about life. It teaches you about friendship. It stretches you in ways you cannot possibly imagine. And it makes you a better leader.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of my final trek at Philmont Scout Ranch. Over the course of five different adventures as a Camper or an Adviser, I hiked well over 400 miles. Each year, I climbed at least two different mountains. I saw the sun rise from atop a 11,100 foot peak. I’ve eaten more Squeeze Cheese for lunch than most people could even imagine. I have looked down on the world from the top of places like Baldy Mountain, Comanche Mountain, Mount Phillips, Uracca Mesa, Wilson Mesa, Deer Lake Mesa, Schaefer’s Peak, Bear Mountain, Big Red, and the Tooth of Time. Later, I also added Trail Peak to my list of conquered mountains.

While I’ve never climbed Mt. Everest or Mt. McKinley, I’ve been around a mountain or two. Some of these journeys felt next to impossible. Others were relatively easy. Looking back on my mountain climbing experiences, there are some key leadership lessons that I learned while climbing these mountains.

1. No one gets left behind.

Hiking at Philmont is hard. It’s physically demanding. It wears some people out quicker than others. But the strain eventually catches up to everyone. This is even moreso when you’re hiking up a mountain together as a crew.

As a crew.

That’s key. You hike together. No one gets too far ahead and no one gets too far behind. I know. It’s tempting to just let the fastest and strongest just forge the path ahead, leaving everyone else in their dust. But that’s not teamwork. There is strength in numbers, so it is advantageous to keep your team close together.

Climbing Baldy Mountain at Philmont Scout Ranch

At Philmont, that meant there were times where the slower hikers would be put up front. They would set the pace. Not only did this keep everyone closer together, but it gave the stronger hikers a chance to encourage those who were struggling.

It just makes sense. If you’re going to be a team, you have to do things to encourage teamwork. Sometimes that means putting other people ahead of you. Some criticize this and call it leading from behind. I call it servant leadership. And since I witnessed first-hand how this helped keep a team together, I firmly believe it’s a key to building teamwork. Allow others to set the pace sometimes. And no one will be left behind.

#2. Listening to others can save your life.

In a great example of horrible decision-making, I made a choice that negatively impacted my health during my second trip to Philmont. I failed to pack a jacket of any kind. The only thing I had was a sweatshirt. I did have a poncho, but the warmest thing I brought for myself was a gray sweatshirt.

“It’ll be OK,” I thought. I didn’t really need my jacket last year.

And for most of the trek, I didn’t need it. I did just fine with the sweatshirt. I knew I should’ve brought a jacket. Friends had reminded me that I needed a jacket. I just didn’t listen to them.

Along one side of Baldy Mountain is an abandoned mine. It’s the Aztec Mine at French Henry Camp. The day before our journey up Baldy, we made a stop at the camp and toured the mine. It was a cool, misty day and touring the mine was a welcome reprieve from carrying our packs uphill all day. As we lined up our packs and prepared for the tour, I took off my sweatshirt and tied it to the back of my pack. My pack cover was on, so I figured my sweatshirt would remain dry.

I was wrong.

When we finished the mine tour, we refilled our water bottles and grabbed our packs in preparation for the final leg of our journey to our camp for the evening, I discovered that my sweatshirt was pretty wet. I don’t remember if it had rained while we were in the mine or if the mist was heavier than I’d thought, but the sweatshirt was not anywhere near dry. It might not have been soaked, but it was more than just a little damp.

I didn’t really think anything of it, really. Stuff dries pretty quickly when you’re in the mountains of New Mexico. Unless, of course, you’re walking through a cloud. Then? Not so much.

We made it to our destination and set up camp in relatively quick time. With the down-time that we had, we decided to play a quick game of Spades. Or maybe it was Hearts. I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was one of those two games because we always played one of those games during our down-time.

My sweatshirt was still damp. But it was getting a little bit chilly, so I put it on. The game continued and we worked hard at one-upping each other with our taunts as we played our cards. Ultimately, I said something pretty snarky and my friend, Jeff, shouted…
"Shut up Blue Lips!"

“Blue lips?” Really? What kind of insult is that, I thought. Then it hit me. Maybe my lips really were blue.

He was laughing, proud of the insult he’d just hurled at me. “OK. Seriously. Are my lips really blue?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. They’re turning a nice shade of blue.”

In preparation for the trek, we went through all kinds of First Aid training. And one of the things they stressed was the signs of hypothermia. You had to get hypothermia under control because if you didn’t, things could get really bad. Blue lips, of course, is a sign that I could’ve been battling a case of hypothermia. And there was no way they were taking me off the trail for that. So I did everything I could to get warm in my sleeping bag. I only came out that evening for a bowl of hot food. I think it was spaghetti. And then I went back to bed.

Jeff didn’t realize I was showing the signs of hypothermia with my blue lips, but there’s still a lesson here. You might not be able to see what’s wrong with you, but outsiders can. Especially your friends. Don’t be so arrogant to think that you have all the answers and that you have it all figured out.

Real leadership involves listening to others – even if they tell you something you don’t want to hear. Don’t surround yourself with “yes men.” Make sure you have people in your life who will call you out for having blue lips. And listen to them. It just might save your life.

#3. Sometimes the view from the top ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Me and my Dad on top of Mt. Baldy.

The next day after being called Blue Lips, we hiked to the top of Mt. Baldy. We were still in the middle of the cloud. The view was…less than stunning. In fact, it was pretty horrible. The vision we had of climbing Baldy and seeing miles and miles in every direction? Yeah. That didn’t happen.

Sometimes reaching the goal we’ve set doesn’t really achieve the results we think it’s going to achieve. So we need to evaluate and re-evaluate and celebrate the wins and learn whatever lessons we can from the experience. The view from Baldy was awful. And climbing up the mountain in the middle of a cloud was awful. I was cold. And I think my thumb was frozen in a thumbs-up position.

But I climbed a 12,441 foot mountain. And I did it with my dad.

The view might not have been worth celebrating, but the experience surely was.

#4. Sometimes, however, the view is breathtaking.
The view from Mt. Baldy

A few years later, we were able to return to Mt. Baldy. It was breathtaking.

Need I say more?

#5. Morale matters.

I got called out while leading a crew once. And it was probably one of the pivotal moments in my life. All of us were pretty miserable at this point. Over the past two days, we had hiked something like 20 miles and were in desperate need of a break. The day’s hike was short, but we needed to get over a mountain ridge in the process. My friend, Jarod, and I were Crew Leaders that year. We were hanging out in the middle of the pack, singing songs and joking around, trying to make the best of the situation.

Suddenly, Jack, Jarod’s dad, pulled the two of us aside and encouraged the rest of the crew to go on. We’d catch up with them shortly. It was a bit of a break in protocol, but I’m glad he did this in private.

Because he ripped into us.

As leaders, we needed to know that everyone in our crew was miserable. They were exhausted. Some were struggling to make it up the ridge. Others were dealing with some serious injuries. Thinking back, we were a pretty miserable sight. But Jarod and I just kept on hiking and joking around and seemed pretty oblivious to everyone’s situation. And Jack let us know that how we were acting as leaders of this crew was completely unacceptable.

“Shut up and lead”

That’s how he finished the lecture. And I got it. That moment is burned into my memory like very few others. In fact, we hiked that same ridge a couple of years later and I stopped to reflect on that moment. Yeah, I felt pretty horrible that Jack had torn into us like that. But it permanently shifted my understanding of leadership.

If you’re a leader and things are going tough, you can’t remain aloof. You can’t just pretend that everything is OK. I think that’s what Jarod and I were trying to do. You have to get in the trenches and be part of the people you are leading. As a leader, they’re following your example. They need to know that you care. Because they’re looking to you for a morale boost. Morale definitely matters.

#6. Words have meaning.

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There was one time where we had to carry our own water up a mountain. I was given the task of strapping one of those 5 (or was it 10? It felt like 500) gallon water bladders to the back of my pack. It was one of the worst experiences I had while climbing a mountain. Yes. Even worse than my first Baldy experience (but not by much).

As we were hiking, people kept trying to encourage me. They kept telling me that it was only half-full.

I wanted to punch them in the throat.

In a nice little twist, half-full reminded me that there was a lot of water in that bag that was strapped to the back of my backpack. It was pretty easy for me to focus on the bag being “full,” even though it was only halfway full. In this case, it was much more optimistic to say that the bag was half-empty.

I know. It’s weird. But it worked. It definitely helped. Because what we say matters. Words have meaning. And leaders’ words are magnified tenfold.

So watch what you say. People are listening. Probably more than you realize.

#7. Climbing a mountain doesn’t happen in one step.

It’s true. Climbing a mountain is a journey. It helps when you break the journey up into smaller, more attainable steps.

Because Baldy is so steep and so rocky, we had a special system in place. Most of the time, it’s most beneficial to keep going when you feel like stopping. You don’t want to kill your momentum while climbing mountains. So you usually push on.

Not so with Baldy. We broke the climb up into smaller, more attainable climbs. And when we’d get to that smaller goal within the larger goal, we’d celebrate with a swig of water and a lemonhead or a cherry drop. We didn’t stop for very long before pressing on.

We had the larger goal, I guess you could call it our vision, in focus. And we broke it up into smaller, more attainable goals. Each goal was challenging, but they were still doable. And then we’d celebrate each little victory. On the outside, it might’ve looked silly. But we conquered that mountain because we worked at a team. And together, we were able to achieve far greater things than we could have if we were all working alone. Successful leaders showed us how to get to the mountaintop as a team.

One goal at a time.

One step at a time.

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Howdy. I'm Matt Todd. My wife and I have four kids and a dog,. I'm passionate about orphan care. I'm a die-hard fan of the Evansville Aces, the Indiana Hoosiers, and Star Wars. I'm trying to live life by the Todd family motto: "It behooves us to live!"

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