Thursday, May 13, 2010

Whiteside from the Forest

Whiteside Mountain soars to almost 5000 feet in western North Carolina. The vistas from its summit are breathtaking regardless of weather. On clear days, one can see the distant lakes that mark the northeastern border between South Carolina and Georgia, and by looking southwest, you can look into the mountains of north Georgia. Of the many hikes that my family enjoys in those mountains, the walk up Whiteside is certainly one of our favorites and one that we have enjoyed across all seasons.

As we do with many things that we love in our lives, I have tried to share the mountains of western North Carolina and more specifically Whiteside Mountain with others. In addition to family and friends, I have brought groups of work mates to these same mountains. Over my career, I have often brought work groups to various environments (battlefields, state parks, historic sites, zoos, museums, etc.) as a way to physically leave the workplace behind. I have found that different surroundings can inspire fresh insights, approaches and learnings to help face the professional challenges of that time. One memorable trip occurred on Whiteside Mountain a few years ago.

I brought a new team of about a dozen direct reports up into the mountains to finalize the work on our annual business plan. The performance goals for the year ahead were daunting, and I wanted us to work on it together knowing that everyone on the team was deeply concerned individually on how we would ever be able to accomplish the performance targets that lie ahead. My plan included having the team prepare by reading a number of documents, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. We drove to the parking lot at the trailhead which was deep in a North Carolina forest and prepared for the hike ahead. I checked that we had plenty of water, a few snacks, a first aid kit, and copies of the readings. I calmly described that the trail would take us to the top of the mountain (which was unseen amidst the trees of the parking lot), that we would take ample stops, and that we would take it pretty slow on the way up.

The hike itself went very well. We stopped a number of times on the way up and when we came out of the trees onto the summit of Whiteside Mountain, the view was breathtaking. We stopped at a few of the mountain’s natural overlooks, pausing to discuss various points of the readings and to connect them to the business challenges that lay ahead. From one overlook, a team member asked about a distant road in the valley thousands of feet below. I said that it was an alternative route that connected back to town and that it had the most amazing views of the sheer cliffs of the mountain.

An hour or so later – sweaty and tired but intact – our team made it back to the parking lot. In my typical fashion. I asked for the team’s reactions and connections between the readings and the hike. The fellow who had commented on the road in the valley was quick to respond. He asked whether I had intentionally NOT taken the valley road and rather had approached the mountain through the forest. My response was a quick no; the fastest route from town to the mountain leads through the forest and speed had been my only motivator. Quickly he described a major connection from the hike which had been completely unplanned. For him, Whiteside from the forest versus Whiteside from the valley was a major learning. If he had approached the mountain from the valley, seeing the height and the steep cliffs that lie ahead, he would have been fearful of the task ahead and doubtful of the potential for success. Instead, we had approached the mountain through the forest, stopping amidst the trees of the parking lot, checking our supplies, talking calmly of the task at hand. This individual talked about confidence and excitement instead of fear and doubt. Many of the others strongly agreed.

Often, as leaders, our responsibility is to prepare our teams for the challenges that lie ahead. At times it’s tempting to provide “lecture notes” that go into great detail about the difficulties, the complexities, and the issues that await to insure that the team has a complete view. In other words, “Whiteside from the valley.” Try to remember the power, potential, and excitement of the calm discussion in the parking lot, or “Whiteside from the forest.”
I had no idea of this “learning lesson” when I planned the hike. Good leaders need to be good teachers (see the entry “A teachable point of view”) who realize that often the best learning occurs in moments when the students can be open and candid with their thoughts, opinions and insights. It’s a mature leader/teacher who realizes that important insights can and should be found outside of “lecture notes.”