15 Aug Hearing the Unheard for Leaders

Doing the same thing over and over again.  Insanity or purposeful?  While choosing every step carefully carrying a 40-pound pack in Colorado’s high country at an average of 12,000 feet, it was hard to think of anything except putting one foot in front of the other to accumulate the 18 miles that was the goal for each day.  It wasn’t like I could contemplate much until I finished the route, because almost every step required some degree of concentration and thought.  When you’re 20 miles from a jeep trail, with no cell phone signal, and averaging seeing three people a day, you can’t afford to slip and twist an ankle!

Colorado's High Country - about 12,000 feet

Colorado’s High Country – about 12,000 feet

It’s been a great summer, and my backpacking trip was the grand finale.  I started the summer with a two-week trip to Ireland with 15 business students from the University of Colorado Denver.  My wife and I then traveled to Costa Rica to celebrate our 30th Anniversary near Arenal Volcano.  We then drove from Denver to Portland for the majority of the summer with our kids and grandkids.  From Portland, we made side-trips to Orcas Island, San Diego, and Seattle.  We drove back to Denver and re-grouped for a week, and then traveled to Orlando to visit with family.  After a week back in Denver, I started on the Colorado Trail on August 9th where I looked forward to the solitude for reflection and to “hear the unheard.”

Hearing the Unheard – Application for Leaders When I finished my journey, I made some notes on what I learned that has a direct correlation to leadership.  Here are my exact notes from the field:

  • Nothing great is achieved by staying in your comfort zone.  It’s true.  I wouldn’t have learned what I did sitting comfortably at home on the couch.  One has to have occasional, intense experiences to learn, appreciate, and to gain grace.
  • You have to push yourself to know what you’re capable of.  Only then can you push other people to accomplish more than they thought they could.  As James Clawson says, “Leadership is the ability and the willingness to influence others so that they respond willingly.”  The ability to influence others comes from knowing yourself.
  • Your resources are not limitless.  Don’t look at things, or people, as dispensable.  Being isolated means being vulnerable.  If a zipper breaks on your sleeping bag when you’re sleeping at 13,000 feet where it freezes at night, even in the summer, it’s going to be rough.  The same holds true for business.  It’s the little things that require maintenance, but it’s less obvious if something is broken, and that’s why a leader has to remove as many communication filters as possible.
  • It takes more than a weekend of being unplugged to develop clarity on priorities.  It wasn’t until my fourth day on the trail did things seem to slow down.  It was as if someone all of a sudden turned on the Technicolor!  I heard more, saw more, and the “static” was gone.  Solitude is essential for leaders to define what’s truly important – i.e., investing time in things only you can do.  Only when you get quiet can you know which obstacles are insurmountable, or which goals are truly important.  Trusting others is an investment that can provide great returns.  To empower others requires giving up control.

  • Everybody’s journey is different, and the focus has to be on the journey versus the destination.  Every time I thought I had climbed the last peak or ridge for the day, there was yet another one.  When I was climbing, and my progress seemed pitifully slow, I looked forward to descending.  When descending, and my toes were taking a pounding, I wanted to climb.  I had to enjoy both, and not think too far ahead.  When I occasionally hit a flat spot, I took it in and really appreciated it because I knew it was temporary.  The same holds true in our organizations.  Things are never even and constant.  Our days, weeks, and months are a constant barrage of up and down, and we have to be present to appreciate our progress and purpose.
  • Most things are quite unpredictable.  The terrain is never exactly like our interpretation from the map.  The weather always surprises.  Some wildlife is viewed with awe, while others with trepidation.  Injuries happen in a flash.  If you can’t adapt and convey hope via optimism, it’s going to be hard to inspire and influence others.  When things didn’t go my way on the trail, I found it helpful to say to myself, “This is to be expected.”
  • It wasn’t until I actually stopped walking 10 hours a day did I have the time to contemplate, think, and truly appreciate the beauty around me.  You have to stop to truly “hear the unheard.”  You have to slow down sometimes to…
    • Set direction
    • Create milestones
    • Speed up
    • Repair and maintain
    • Adjust to the elements
    • Know thyself

Paulo Coelho summarized what I learned best,

“What is success?  Is is being able to go to bed each night with your soul at peace.”

 Simply, it’s grace…  the leadership pioneer Warren Bennis, who died recently, was quoted as saying:

I’m thinking, I’m not yet serious about this, but it may come that my next book will be called one word – and I’m not a particularly religious person, but the word is a powerful word: it’s Grace. I think that may be just the name for a book which is going to deal with issues of generosity, respect, redemption, and sacrifices. All of which sound vaguely spiritual, but all of which I think are going to be required for leadership.

*Foot Notes

Seneca– I had hoped to carry 35 pounds or less (26% of my weight), but I ended up carrying 41.5 pounds (31% of my weight).  I lost 2 pounds on the trip, because I had to force the food down.  Extreme exercise at altitude just destroys my appetite.

– For company, I took along one of my ancient friends – Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters.



For food – 13 pounds…


3 liters of Water = 7 pounds | Gear – 21.5 pounds

Total Pack Weight - 41.5 pounds

Total Pack Weight – 41.5 pounds

  • Glenn McIntosh
    Posted at 07:01h, 26 August Reply

    Jan, thanks for these great words of wisdom and insight. I wished I had read this years ago during my 34 year career with the US Army Corps of Engineers, all in Wilmington, NC, except for a 6-month tour in Afghanistan – got out of my comfort zone. I found this link through on of Tom Morris’ blogs. Great read and I am printing this for use now that I am retired and searching for more meaning in my life forward.

    • Jan Rutherford
      Posted at 07:37h, 26 August Reply

      Glenn – thank you for the kind words. I am glad you found me via Tom Morris. As you probably know, Tom is based in NC as well. Thank you for your service, and I hope you signed up to get future posts! All the best. ~Jan

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