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Want to Learn to be a Leader? Just Be One.

February 13, 2012

Every fall, I spend a week in Lander, Wyoming.

At one level, I go there for a board meeting.  But at another level, I go there to give back.  Because it was there in Wyoming that I learned almost everything I know about being an entrepreneur.

When I was in 14 years old, my parents packed me off to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to take a thirty-day course in outdoor leadership in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.  It changed my life.

On a personal level, NOLS instilled in me a deep love for mountains – as well as the skills in wilderness travel and mountaineering that I still use today.

But on a much deeper level, NOLS taught me to be a leader.  Not by telling me how to do it, but by letting me practice being one.

For almost every one of the 30 days I spent in the mountains that first summer, our small groups would pack up for the hike to the next camp and each student would be given the chance to lead for the day.  Each time my turn rolled around, it was all on me; I would decide what time to start out (when it’s cool and the snow is hard enough to walk on top of, or later, when the snow softens and it’s easier to kick steps).  I would decide what route to take (the harder route over the pass, or the longer route following the creek).  I would decide how many breaks to take, how long they should be, and where to take them.  I would decide where to camp for the night.

The feedback loop was immediate.  I quickly learned that which route I choose and how I managed the group’s time decided whether we made it to camp in time for a swim or staggered in exhausted after dark.  I learned that my group’s willingness to follow was less dependent on the actual choices I made at each juncture and much more dependent on my ability to solicit input, make a decision, and communicate it with conviction and clarity.

I learned to be comfortable with ambiguity.  To be comfortable with difficulty.  To work as a team.

Looking back, its hard to think of many other places where a 14 year old kid could have gotten the opportunity to make real decisions with real consequences and get such immediate feedback on how well they did it.

That course was just the first of many.  Week after week and course after course, starting with short hikes and moving up to multi-day expeditions, first as a student and then eventually as an instructor, I made thousands of decisions; some trivial and some truly life and death.

Through those years, I learned, practiced, and slowly-but-steadily internalized what it meant to be a leader.   Not by being told about it, but by being given the chance to actually do it.

And that’s the important take away here.  The only way to learn it is to do it.

I think I’m a reasonably good entrepreneur and a decent leader, but I didn’t learn these things by reading a book, taking a class, joining an incubator, or anything like that.  I learned it by doing it.  By trying things and finding out whether they worked.  By making decisions and seeing how they came out.

So by the time of my first startup — where I had to be a leader, be comfortable with ambiguity, make decisions, and clearly communicate those decisions to others, I already had thousands of hours of experience doing exactly that.

Some people think that leaders are born, not made.  That’s bullshit.  Leadership CAN be learned, but not by taking a course or reading a book.

Want to learn to be a leader?  Get out there and find a place where you can actually be one.

———–

Note: I’m currently on the NOLS board of trustees.  For those of you interested, the non-profit National Outdoor Leadership School still teaches thousands of students a year the fundamentals of outdoor leadership, environmental ethics, and wilderness travel – all in spectacular outdoor classrooms in 13 countries on 5 continents.   Join us at: www.nols.edu

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    Marc,

    I just bombed my first two semi-serious attempts at starting a company after spending 7 years in the field as an instructor, many of those years with NOLS co-instructors. The biggest mistake in those two start-ups was failing to do with my business partners what all instructors do before and during course: instructor check-ins, making sure we were nice and linked first and foremost so that we could move ahead with the course, and survive hell-or-highwater.

    Keep the posts coming – I’m listening.

      There’s a whole other post I could write about the “expedition behavior” components of a startup. I’ve been fairly lucky that I’ve only worked in a couple of startups that were truly dysfunctional – both of which eventually crashed and burned. Whereas most of the successful ventures I’ve been apart of we had a team that functioned pretty smoothly. Netflix had perhaps the best relationship between the principles. We called it “egoless” management in that we were all totally comfortable vigorously debating the options as we struggled to find the right solution, but as soon as we reached a consensus, everyone would wordlessly fall in behind the decision and support it as if it was their own.