22 Jun 11

by Kara Minotti Becker

When I’m asked to take charge of a thing – whatever thing – my first reaction is probably similar to everyone else’s. I’m flattered. I feel important, like my opinion matters and my expertise is valued. It’s a good feeling.

And like most others, I assume that because I’m in charge, I’m, well – in charge. You know. If there are things to be done, I’ll do them – or be the one to ask others to. If there are questions, I’m expected to have answers. When there are problems, I’ll be the one to solve them. I also immediately start feeling the pressure – like I better have this thing wired, at least I better look like I do! People are handing me the reins. They’re counting on me. I better not need help, or not know a thing, or be unsure about a decision. I better be perfect.

Let me tell you, this is a mistake I’ve made a thousand times. When Randy and Carrie asked me to lead the Madison-Adams trip over the July 4th weekend, I did it again. I’ve often wondered how many times you have to learn a lesson before you stop forgetting it. Apparently in this case, at least one more time.

Leading a trip like this is a big responsibility under any circumstances. But when it’s your dear friends you’re taking into the wilds of the White Mountains, and especially when one of them is counting on you to deliver the next success in his excellent and worthy cause, you don’t want to make mistakes. You want to be – or at least seem – perfect. So when I was asked, I immediately began planning to be just that. But I’ve noticed that the same thing happens every time you make this mistake.

You overlook the most valuable resource you ever have at your disposal: your team.

When you try to have all the answers, you don’t get the benefit of the experience, creativity, and different point of view that others can provide. What a waste!

This dawned on me a few weeks back when I was asking Carrie, the 2020 hiking manager, for her advice on trails and terrain on Madison and Adams. She gave me a huge amount of useful information, insight, and advice. But I suddenly realized there was someone else I should be asking: Randy. Randy spends more time hiking mountains, researching hiking mountains, thinking about hiking mountains (and maybe good-naturedly cursing about hiking mountains) than any of the rest of us put together. He’s more an expert than I am by far at this point. So why wasn’t I asking him?

There I was, making that same old mistake. I didn’t want to seem like I wasn’t a proper leader – the expert with all the answers. Ah, ego. You’re never far away, are you?

Luckily, as I mentioned, I’ve made this mistake before, and now I know just what to do. It’s easy – all you have to do is drop the pretense and ask questions. Go to your team, and ask away. How should we do this? What do you think of that? This is my idea – do you have a different one? It’s amazing how much better your plans will be, but more to the point, how much better you and your team will be when you approach things this way. You relieve the pressure on yourself. Your team feels empowered and involved. Everyone develops a sense of humor, and the understanding that we’re not perfect, but together, we’ll figure things out as best we can.

So that’s what I did – I called Randy and started asking questions. As we talked I realized there was so much we could cover, and it was so much fun to do so, that we really should get together to do it (which we are, this Friday in fact – which means I get to talk to Tracy too!) This week, I’ll be bugging the rest of the team about their ideas, concerns and suggestions for the trip. Now that I’ve learned this lesson again for probably the 397th time, I’m really looking forward to it!

I’ve always passionately believed that true leadership comes from below – as support, encouragement, and enablement – not from above, as disconnected (if well-intentioned) instruction. But you can see how that latter happens. When we’re asked to take charge, we want to live up to the compliment and be worthy of the trust. The real key is what we do next as a leader. In the end, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn this lesson again. Maybe this is the last time I’ll have to.

But probably not.

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