Lightning and Leadership

Mar 25, 2024 | Leadership leadership
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I always thought I was a “natural leader” - until I found myself leading a group on a mountain ridge through a lightning storm. That's when I learned what leadership was really all about: decisions.

I played soccer as a child. I played goalkeeper because as a kid I thought it was cool to dive around like they did, and I had pretty good reflexes. I made my way to a serious-but-not-overly-serious team and learned that the goalkeeper was responsible for keeping the defense organized and for making sure everyone worked together for things like trying to catch the other team offside. People listened to me in that role so I thought that made me a good leader. Then, as a Boy Scout, I was named patrol leader and senior patrol leader and got to tell people what to do on campouts, at summer camp, etc. I thought that made me a leader. In middle school, I started playing the trumpet. I got pretty good at it and was even good at marching around and playing the trumpet at the same time so I eventually would get to be a section leader in the marching band. Teenage me thought this was because I had some talent for leadership and that meant I “was” a leader and that other people were not.

Fast forward a few years from my days as a goalkeeper for the Altamonte Mallers, and I’m now the crew leader for a group of Boy Scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch. This means that I, at 16 years old, am in charge of the adults as well as the boys. In spite of some fairly heavy rain and some unfortunate injuries that sidelined a few of our group members, my time at Philmont was relatively uneventful until the second to last day of our trek. We were on top of a mountain ridge on a day that was just about getting from point A to point B. We had broken our camp - lowered our “bear bags”, taken down our tents, loaded up our packs - and headed towards the site of our last night of camping when we noticed a large storm quickly heading in our direction. Before long, the rain was torrential. Lightning was striking. We would count the number of seconds between the lightning and the thunder, estimating one mile in distance for every second passed. The number of seconds became zero. The hair on our arms and legs stood up from the electricity in the air. Growing up in Florida, I had been outdoors for my fair share of thunderstorms. I had never been this frightened in one before.

So while standing in a downpour with nothing but a paper map and a compass to guide me and a group of teenage boys and adult men, I came to the realization that we were off course. Not “lost” per se - I knew what trail we were on - I just didn’t know precisely where on the trail we were. Most importantly, I could not say with 100% certainty whether the junction with the trail we were supposed to take to get to our desired destination was ahead of us or behind us. The trail we were on followed the ridge eventually curving around to take us to our desired destination. The trail we were supposed to take split off 90 degrees, significantly shortening the distance.

I was responsible for the decision. It wasn’t just because I was the crew leader. I was also the orienteer - the person with the map and compass who had the most knowledge of our path and our position. So while I had the authority to make a decision, I also had the trust of the crew that I had a better understanding of the situation and therefore would be able to make the best decision.

The variables of the decision were as follows:

  1. All trails were clearly marked with colored patches or “blazes” painted on trees (thus the term “trail blazers”). Blazes were distanced so you could see the next blaze from each previous blaze. Junctions in trails were marked by putting the different colored blazes on the same tree.
  2. We knew what trail we were on due to the color of the blazes and knew that trail would lead us to a road that we could follow to our destination. We simply needed to follow the blaze color of the current trail and we would arrive - albeit much later than intended - at our desired campsite. While it was extremely unlikely based on our established hiking pace and time elapsed, it was possible that we simply had not reached the junction we were looking for and may reach it shortly.
  3. We had most likely already missed the junction. If we turned around, there is no guarantee we would not miss it again while traveling in the wrong direction. We could eventually find it, but we could also end up with the only option to be the option of continuing the way we were currently going.
  4. We were on top of a ridge in the middle of a thunderstorm so the longer we remained on the ridge, the more exposure we had to the dangerous lightning of the storm.

So there were three potential outcomes: we keep on the current path and get to our destination later after a longer hike, we double back and find the junction and get to our destination sooner, we double back and do not find the junction and then end up taking even longer than it would to stay on the same path.

Even though it was possible we might find the junction, we had already missed it once so we might miss it again. To have any chance of finding it, we would have to move slowly and carefully to make sure we don’t miss a single blaze. This all increases our exposure to the storm. By keeping moving, we do spend some time on the ridge but we are definitely moving towards a position that will take us down. So while there was some possibility for a better outcome by turning around, there was also a possibility for a worse outcome. The outcome by moving forward was more predictable.

You may have chosen differently. There are other books that could guide you to make the best decision or how to cope with the outcome of that decision. The reason I recounted this story was to show the perspective of what decision-making means in the context of leadership:

  1. Authority to make the decision is not the result of title or position within an organization.
  2. For a decision to be followed, there must be a consensus within the group that the decision maker is trusted.
  3. Decision makers should have an innate understanding of the options and potential outcomes of the decision.