The best leadership lessons are often learned when we put ourselves in the role of a follower.
This past week, I went on my annual bird hunting trip to New England. I’ve been making this trip for years and enjoy getting away from work and being in the outdoors.
One of my favorite parts of the trip is that I’m not the leader.
The people I hunt with have been hunting these areas for a lot longer than me. So, I’m content to sit back and let others lead. I get to just relax and enjoy being in the woods, plus I get the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a follower.
Deep in the New Hampshire woods this week, I made some interesting observations.
Our third day of hunting started out normal. Six of us and three dogs entered the forest at the base of a remote mountain. Once we were clear from the dense underbrush, we discussed the plan of attack. We hadn’t been in this area for several years.
There was a debate among the more experienced hunters about the best way to hunt this area. I heard discussions about skidder trails, clear cuts, spruce bogs, and other details about this mountain. I wasn’t really listening. I was just waiting for my instructions. I was content to just follow the plan, whatever it was.
Without reaching any conclusion that I could tell, our most experienced hunter just picked up his gun and started walking up the mountain. I was confused and didn’t know what we were doing, so I asked, “What’s the plan?”
“Just line up and walk up the hill keeping the sun on your right shoulder. If anything changes, I’ll let you know over the radio.”
OK, I thought. I can do that. So, I set off.
Every few minutes, I would call out to the person on my left and my right to ensure we wouldn’t get separated in the deep woodland expanse. However, about 30 minutes into the push, I could no longer hear the person to my left.
I wasn’t worried, though. This happens a lot when we are pushing through a dense forest. Since there hadn’t been any changes announced over the radios, I continued to hike up the mountain with the sun on my right shoulder.
About 45 minutes later, our leader came over the radio looking for us. He was coming in very weak, indicating he was far away.
I called out to the guys on my right. Three of us were still together, but I realized that the rest of the team had traveled far to the left – almost out of radio range. Over the radio, I asked our leader to shout out loud to figure out where he was.
When I heard his faint voice in the distance, I realized we were almost half a mile apart. We had been walking in separate directions in the dense woods for nearly an hour. We need to backtrack to regroup.
When we finally got the group back together again, I asked our leader what had happened. He told me that when he got to the skidder trail, he realized it was the end of the area he wanted to hunt. So, he turned left to work in a different direction, failing to notify everyone of the change.
Our directions were to walk up the hill and listen for any changes on the radio. Since no changes were announced, three of us continued deep into the forest, utterly unaware that part of the group had changed course. The plan had changed, and no one told us.
The good news is that, other than some sore legs, nothing terrible happened due to this mix-up. But, it does illustrate some important aspects of leadership.
First, it’s important to provide clear directions when you assign a task. This includes allowing people to ask questions to make sure they fully understand the assignment. I talk about this in my book, All in the Same Boat. I learned in the Navy that most misunderstandings occur when the task is first assigned.
Second, it’s critical to follow up throughout an assignment to ensure the orders are still clear. Our leader was silent throughout the entire hunt leading us to falsely assume everything was proceeding to plan. In business, following up with employees on assignments prevents miscommunication and costly mistakes.
Third, it’s essential to let employees know when things change. Just like my hunting experience, conditions on the ground often require us to change our plans. We need to communicate those changes clearly to our employees so they can adjust their actions.
Communication is a critical part of leading people, and that fact was strongly reinforced in the woods this week.
It also reminded me that the best leadership lessons are often learned when we put ourselves in the role of a follower. In my case, I saw how ineffective communication led to poor performance.
I encourage you to put yourself into a follower role every once in a while and see what you learn. The lessons are often more powerful when you see them from the other side.