Success or Mediocrity

Leadership Navigates the Challenge

I once had a leader who missed an opportunity to lead others to excellence. He’s going on to great things, but the story is a good lesson.

At the time this leader struggled with their own aches, pains and discomfort with the situation. We were backpacking, after all, which lends to dehydration, sore feet, exhaustion. Our itinerary on this day began with hiking from our campsite back to a junction we’d arrived at yesterday after hiking the first 6 miles of a looped route.

We were to continue the 8 miles of that loop back to the trailhead. The group, while challenged, was fully capable. But within the first leg to that junction, this leader built consensus and made an executive decision that we should just return on the first, easier, shorter 6-mile trail we entered on.

I was disappointed. I could have overruled or out debriefed. But doing either would have undermined our Leader-of-the-Day framework, disrespected the “group” decision, and put me in the position of force marching participants further than they had already elected to go.

When we reached that junction, the direction in which we should have followed in order to complete our planned route was blocked by a stream crossing. The water was flowing high enough to wet your legs to your crotch, but was reasonably passable. We’d already learned how to safely navigate stream crossings. But our leader used the stream crossing as rationalization for his decision.

“Look, that’s what we were going to have to do if I hadn’t already decided to go back the other way.”

Two more adept participants in the group were disappointed. They wanted to take the route originally planned but were now unsure of their ability to cross. I shrugged off the rationalizations of the leader and his appeals for us to legitimize them. I reminded them that we’d learned how to safely navigate stream crossings. As we watched, they successfully crossed the stream to eventually complete the route.

We finished our easier, shorter hike and met up with the two participants who’d been successful. And they reported the other trail to have been much more difficult. Our leader repeated…

“I’m so happy with my decision right now.”

…to the quick agreement of the other exhausted followers.

But being a leader is not about making a decision. It is especially not about making a decision that reflects your own readiness or lack thereof. Being a leader is about the group’s mission.

Both literally and figuratively, the leader’s aches, pains and discomfort represented internal challenges and the stream represented external challenges. And they should not necessarily have taken the more difficult route for the sake of difficulty. But there are a few principles here that we can take home:

  • Excellence is frequently difficult.
    Sure what you’re doing is already hard. It’s already hard to go to work or school day in and day out. But that’s doing what everyone already has to do. Doing only what you have to is mediocrity. To do something greater requires you to push harder, further beyond what you already do.
  • It’s easy to find rationalization for not doing something more difficult.
    Short term survival predisposes us to avoid challenges; long term survival requires us to engage and overcome. Any reason at all is a valid reason to avoid difficulty. Choosing the more difficult path has only one reason: to excel. Those who summit Everest do so despite inconvenience.
  • Mediocrity is infectious.
    As a leader, your influence is assumed. Your inclinations are infectious, whether these are to overcome the inhibitions and hurdles before you or to surrender to them. If you are unwilling to rise above, those with you will find your example to be reason enough to give up as well.
  • Leading others down the easy path usurps others right to excellence.
    This leader was not a bad person. He just didn’t choose difficulty for the sake of the mission and, in so doing, led the group to mediocre accomplishment. The two participants who completed the mission accomplished so much more.

Years ago I was in a different leadership class with exhausted participants. We’d descended 45 minutes into a cave to find our way made difficult. Only 10 minutes from the exit, to continue we would have to belly crawl 15 feet through a low passage. The water level left only a few inches of airspace.

I showed the way to the group leader and asked him to facilitate group discussion. Faced with the prospect of crawling through cold water, turning their heads to the side so that they could breathe, I asked whether they wanted to continue or turn around to take the easy 45-minute walk back.

This leader gave the information, considered management plans, then conveyed the unanimous choice:

“Everyone wants to give it a try.”

And they all made it through, with the brightest, broadest grins on their faces, to exit the cave to the most magnificent blanket of snow that had fallen while we were underground.

Given internal and external obstacles one leader chose to split the group and achieve only mediocrity. The other chose ‘let’s try’ and achieved excellence.

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