Monday, November 4, 2013

Adapting to Complexity

Last December, our oldest son gave my wife a hiking trip in Arizona for her birthday. Once we coordinated schedules and settled on doing this trip in late May, I went deep into planning mode.

First, I created an initial gear list that she and I would need. Referencing back to my major hiking days in the 70’s, I began collecting all sorts of stuff from the attic. Finally, having not hiked in the southwest since my college years, I asked my oldest son for help. His list included some things that I was not thinking about such as nylon hiking pants, a very wide brimmed hat to keep the sun off my bald head and tender, fair skinned ear tips, and under-armor t-shirts. We also borrowed gear from our younger son who had recently worked in the back country in the southwest for six months as an Americorp volunteer. This included a dromedary with hose and mouth piece for carrying water.

Second, I started preparing my body and my mind. Every day all winter long, I walked very fast for 30 minutes, seeking out all the hills in our small town.  Given I grew up in an outdoors focused family with scouting roots, lots of summer camp hiking, and being a former back packing leader in the 70’s, I knew this trip could be challenging. Therefore, I was a bit apprehensive about the physical challenge that could surface when hiking in the southwest at 8,000 foot elevation.

Once we arrived in late May, and transitioned to the higher altitude in Flagstaff, AZ for 24 hours, we started to pack out for the trip. As I pulled out my 70’s based gear, my oldest son frequently gave me the “don’t bring that” head shakes. I trusted his opinion given he had been actively involved in outdoor work for many years in the southwest. Nevertheless, I started to feel not very confident, competent, or current as we started off on this multiple day back packing trip.

On the first night of our camping trip, I felt like an 11 year old, Tenderfoot Boy Scout all over again. I couldn’t set up our tent right without help and instruction. I did not know how the stove worked and I did not know what was coming up next. I didn’t even know how to pack the high quality, expedition backpack that my son had borrowed from a friend of his for me.

Still, with his assistance and patient teaching, my wife and I made it through the first night. Our son and his amazing girl friend created some spectacular meals on the trail such as pesto and fresh veggies over noodles, red curry with sweet potatoes, and fresh veggies, mac and cheese with red wine plus desserts like scrambled brownies, jello cheese cake, chocolate nut bars etc.

Meanwhile, I started from the very beginning and learned how to pack my own back pack all over again. While I was not confident, competent, or current, I was trainable. I slowly connected the dots around the terminology of “cannon balls”, i.e. heavy stuff, and “fluffy stuff”, i.e. light things, when packing my pack. When I did get my expedition sized back pack to stand up on it’s own, I was elated.

On our first day on the trail, I tried hiking with with trekking poles because they were supposed to reduce the shock on my older knees as we hiked down into a nearby canyon. Beside making so much noise with the poles clicking and clacking over rocks and the like, I felt totally awkward and uncomfortable. I was afraid I might trip over the poles that were suppose to be helping. In the end, I skipped the poles and hoped my knees would handle the stress. I realized that I was close to overload on new stuff and the hiking poles were just a hinderance more than a help.

The second night on the trail my wife and I set up our own tent and I realized again the power of a short term win.  For a brief moment, I felt invincible, and regained a bit of confidence. 

On the third day, I finally started to get the daily rhythm of hiking and setting up camp. The following morning I even figured out how to use the hiking stove and heat up water for the tea.  

We hiked out the fourth morning and upon reflection, I had learned some very important lessons. First, small and/or large shifts in environment, i.e. context, can dramatically undercut the capacity and confidence of the followers. As a follower on this trip, I started from a place of limited ability to fully understand and assess the right path or choices. I also kept second guessing myself and assuming I was making the wrong choices. It also was hard to figure out what I needed because I was not sure and did not have many reference points for this kind of journey. I realized that I was not current with the new technology and modern way of moving through this landscape. I had to unlearn my 60’s/70’s way of camping and hiking, and instead embrace a more modern way of doing things. That was much easier said than done.

Second, without a safety zone and a patient teacher/leader in my son and his girl friend, I often ended up becoming a watcher, overwhelmed by too much external stimulus and information. While the environmental shift to camping in the southwest was normal for my son and his girl friend, it was complex for my wife and I. We had our own physical and mental challenges, e.g. we really did not know what was going to happen next on the trail, and we had to completely trust our experienced son and his girl friend to guide us along the way. We had to take “baby steps” to move through the world of constant change.

Third, moving from one level of effective action to a new level of effectiveness requires tremendous faith in one’s self on the part of the follower, plus faith in the leader and faith in the journey to a new level of competency. This journey  also came with more than a few “ego bruises” along the way. True unlearning and relearning is not easy.

There is an old hiking prayer that goes as follows: “Lord, if you lift them up [i.e. my feet], I will put them down in the right place.” It was not just the lifting them up but also having no idea where we were going other than a name on a map that was challenging. It took me quite some time to connect with interpreting a USGS map again and to translate it into what it means in actuality.

Thankfully each step of the way we had a kind and patience pair of people helping my wife and I along the way.  Their leadership made all the difference between a good trip and a great trip.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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