In a slightly pensive mood this evening as I write this blog. For the past week, my fifteen year-old daughter has been embarked on a 14-day backpacking trip on Isle Royale, a little-known National Park situated smack in the middle of Lake Superior. As a teen, I completed a nearly identical trip, with wonderful memories of the isolated northern wilderness, the spectacular lake vistas, dozens of moose sightings and the nightly calls of the grey wolves on the island. It was a defining moment in my teen years. So, it was with such excitement that I dropped my daughter off for her own adventure.
Late last evening, I received a call from the camp. My daughter had injured her knee, and despite wanting to press on, had been ferried back to mainland on the sixth day. As it turns out, with a 40 lbs backpack on her barely 5-foot frame, she managed to limp through three days and twelve miles of wilderness before her trip leader made the call.
So, what’s this got to do with organizations and leadership? Well, it’s a story of real courage, but not just of a fifteen year-old determined to press on despite her pain. It’s also the courage of a college-aged wilderness leader, forced to adapt, motivate, and nurture a relatively novice adventurer. And it’s the courage of that leader to eventually reach the decision to end my daughter’s trip, not because she couldn’t have struggled through the remaining eight days. She likely could have. But rather, the leader made the call because adapting the trip for my daughter would have too heavily impacted the experiences of the other five girls on the trip. It was the courage to face the potential criticism of parents, who had footed the costly expense of the trip. Yet, she made the decision anyway. And in my opinion, it was the right decision.
Was it the right decision because all the facts supported it? Who knows? I would argue, though, it was the right decision because on her own on an isolated island, this 21 year-old leader didn’t falter from taking a decisive course of action. She balanced the needs of the individual with the needs of the group, assessed the situation, and despite the disappointment apparent in the eyes of my daughter, she picked up the satellite phone and called it in.
Leaders twice her age and with considerably more leadership experience frequently fail to properly balance these two (often competing) perspectives. Instead, they may opt for a compromise that fails to substantially benefit either. Or they defer to another authority rather than make the decision themselves, out of fear of accountability.
Camp Manito-Wish YMCA is known for its development of first-class young leaders. Alumni staff members have gone on to positions of prominence in organizations in every sector of American society. And for those who have experienced this northwoods leadership training grounds, either as campers or staff members themselves, it’s not a surprise that some of the greatest leaders have shared meals in Nash Lodge and watched the summer sunset over Boulder Lake. For this organization takes its young and passionate leaders, empowers them with both great responsibility and impressive decision-making authority, and them entrusts them to make the right decisions. And time after time, the leaders do exactly that.
I’m disappointed for my daughter that her summer adventure didn’t work out as planned. It will take some time for her to understand the positive lessons to be learned from such experiences. But she gained a role model in this fantastic young leader, and that is something from which my daughter will herself leverage in future experiences. So, while a disappointment, this summer’s Manito-Wish adventure was far from a failure.