Thursday, March 26, 2020

Leaders Lessons from an Outward Bound Wilderness Instructor


Guest post from Mark Brown:

Leaders in the outdoor leadership space are quite familiar with a wilderness ethic and organization called Leave No Trace. Originally a program created by the United States Forest Service in the late 1980s, the organization offers guidelines to people who venture into the wilderness to help reduce their negative impact and preserve it for future generations. LNT has become the gold standard for organizations who operate in America’s backcountry environments.

LNT is not a well-known philosophy beyond the outdoor industry. But perhaps it should be. This argument was introduced by New York Life CEO Ted Mathas, while speaking at an event hosted by Outward Bound USA that honored New York Life Foundation's work with grieving teens. Mathas, himself an alumnus of Outward Bound’s wilderness programs, made the connection as he discussed his journey to becoming an effective CEO. He highlighted the importance of leaders putting their egos aside and “leaving no trace” by respecting the culture that exists and supporting people rather than focusing on their own agendas.

Mathas’ insights could be expanded to include many of the seven principles listed by Leave No Trace:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Business leaders who know the environment in which they are leading can greatly minimize any negative impact, whether on the people they lead or the communities/environments in which they operate. Deliberate planning to minimize impact will ensure more positive outcomes. Too many leaders make either/or decisions regarding both human and environmental impacts, but this is a false choice that can be negated with proper planning and preparation.
  2. Dispose of Waste Properly: Waste disposal builds upon planning and preparation. LNT philosophy requires nothing be left behind that would negatively impact the environment. Business, particularly manufacturing has embraced the Japanese concepts of Muda and Kaizen, which have been widely adapted across industries as Lean. Muda is waste and Kaizen is the process of reducing that waste made most famous by Toyota’s Production System. Mathas actually takes this even further in his presentation, connecting this concept well with what is known as the “8th waste”—that of unused human creativity. An effective leader is one who taps that potential.
  3. Leave What You Find: Mathas honed in on this as an important aspect he paid attention to when he became a new CEO. New York Life has existed for 175 years. It has a rich history and culture, and as a new leader he recognized that his most important leadership was to preserve the good that was there as he guided the organization forward. Even struggling organizations have good things about them, and good people within who may be hunkered down waiting for better leadership. LNT advises us to see what is there and to preserve it for future generations.
  4. Be Considerate of Others: The wilderness holds a special place for those who travel into it. LNT asks that travelers respect not only the place, but the experience as well. Trail etiquette and minimizing noise to respect others are large parts of this principle. In a business setting, this principle has huge implications for the role an organization plays in its community and the world. The Conscious Capitalism movement has a tenet it calls a “stakeholder orientation.” This tenet reflects the importance of consideration to everyone who has engagement with the organization, from customers to vendors and the community in which it operates. Following this principle elevates the place of corporations in the lives of people.
All of our institutions are currently under tremendous strain. Rapid change and technological advances are only going to accelerate. Corporate leaders would do well to follow the words of Mathas and look to organizations that have been advising leaders about how to navigate the wilderness, where leaders have been successfully and safely guiding into the unknown.


About Mark Brown:
Mark Brown is the author of Outward Bound Lessons to Live a Life of Leadership: To Serve, to Strive, and Not To Yield. Originally a native of Northeastern Ohio, Mark moved to Naples, Florida where he worked as a writer and magazine editor. At the age of 25, he decided to attend a 23-day trip to an Outward Bound course in Utah. After taking a temporary job as a van driver for Outward Bound in Minnesota, he helped successfully search for and rescue a teenage boy that had become separated from the group. After this, Outward Bound asked him to become an instructor which began a 22-year working relationship with the organization. He accrued over 1,000 days in the wilderness as an instructor. He earned a master’s degree in business/entrepreneurship from Western Carolina University and has since served as a transformational leadership consultant in a variety of industries.

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