Northwoods Leadership: Expanding Horizons

common-loon_794_600x450The call of the loon….no, not the crazy guy who sits three cubicles down and bellows with laughter each time he receives a knock-knock joke in his email.  Nope, this was the feathered variety, and the setting was Isle Royale National Park last week.  And (pun intended), the loons were CRAZY!!  Crazy….and incredible!

I just returned from a five-day backpacking trek with a childhood friend on this remote and wild island 54 miles out into the frigid waters of Lake Superior.  It was an opportunity to reconnect with a fantastic old friend.  It was the chance to challenge this 42-year old body (40 miles of rugged terrain covered in just over 4 days).  And it was a chance to reflect on leadership development.

Oh my goodness!  You did NOT spend your vacation thinking about work, did you?!?!?

Well, for the most part, no, I did not. I took full advantage of the “escape” and focused on…well, just on me and my environment.  The loons.  The wildlife.  The serenity.  The peacefulness.  It was heavenly, I assure you.

But yes, I did also think about leadership.  And, why, you might ask?  Because once again, I witnessed it in a most remarkable way.

huge-backpackAlthough the least visited of all National Parks, one certainly encounters a number of different visitors while on Isle Royale.  It’s a haven primarily for hard-core campers, backpackers, and kayakers.  And one runs into a fair number of what I would refer to as…well, backpacking “dreamers.”  These are the type who either have all the panache, but lack the real wilderness spirit.  Or they are those who overpack and tromp in and about every campsite with the grace of a stampeding elephant and the sensitivity of an NFL tailgater.  Sometimes, they encompass both of these unenviable qualities.

But then there are the purists, the trekkers who truly “get it.”  Theirs is an unspoken respect for the experience that they seek, not some merit badge or cotton knit souvenir stating, “I visited a National Park, and all I got was this stinking t-shirt.”  They are in the Park, but they go to great lengths to downplay their presence, ensuring others are only minimally aware that they’re even there.  If low impact camping is all the rage, these folks exemplify the art in everything they do.

On our second day in the Park, we encountered of these groups, and instantly, we knew.  This was a Camp Manito-Wish group.  For heading up these groups of teenagers was a young adult, still in college herself.  Here she was, probably not more than 21 years old, leading a 6 person team on a demanding (and potentially dangerous) trek through some of the most remote and serene wilderness in North America.

images (3)Within five minutes of encountering them, we saw true leadership.  Whether it was delegating the set-up of a campsite, the filtering of water for the team, or checking in on each member of the team.  Why, this young leader was doing a better job of leading the teens in what almost any parent will admit is the most volatile and insecure periods of most adolescents’ lives!  And she was doing it without yelling, without coercion, and without rebellion.  The kids respected her.  They listened to her.  They respected her.

To be transparent, both Ian and I instantly recognized the “Manito-Wish brand,” because we too had been there.  We were raised in the Camp Manito-Wish culture as youngsters and through our early teens.  We tested our mettle for 14, 18, and 22-day trips as campers on the trails of Isle Royale and on the waterways of Northern Saskatchewan.  We experienced the leadership of just such leaders, and eventually, we too became such leaders.  And so, we knew before a word was said, when we first saw each group, THAT was a Manito-Wish leader.

DSC00216I’m waxing poetic not merely out of reminiscence (although there is some of that as well).  As someone who has led progressively larger and more complex groups throughout my life, and who now is focused on helping others develop their own (and others’) leadership skills, I find myself frankly in awe of the effectiveness and impact of the Manito-Wish leadership experience.

As we boarded the ferry home from Isle Royale and chugged back toward the Upper Peninsula, I watched this young Manito-Wish leader and her team. Their 14-day trip was coming to an end, and there was a bittersweet expression on her face.

She slouched back against the outer bulkhead of the boat.  She ran a hand through her matted blonde hair, and she sighed, “I’m exhausted…But isn’t it awesome?”  And looking out over the ship’s railing, she smiled, not at anyone in particular, but more just to herself.

So, yes, even on my summer vacation, I thought about leadership.  But I did more than just think about it.  I witnessed it in the young face and actions of a 21-year-old college student.  I just hope she realizes what a wonderful leadership experience she’s had and what a fantastic leader she’s already proven herself to be….home_large_img

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