This past summer, the United States Naval Academy expanded their partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in a significant way. The Academy agreed to send the first expedition of Midshipmen to Mt. McKinley (traditionally called Denali) in the Alaska Range.
Standing at 20,237 ft, Denali is the tallest peak in North American and the base-to-peak elevation rise is the largest of any mountain entirely above sea level.
The Midshipmen chosen were alumni of previous NOLS courses, already experienced in the NOLS mission of using the wilderness to teach leadership lessons through practical experience and real consequences. However, my five peers and I underestimated the amount that this mountain could push us as a team (including our three guides) and as leaders.
Coming away from my second NOLS course only reaffirmed my belief that NOLS, as a summer training option, is one of the best leadership tools we as Midshipmen have access to. Although the benefits of NOLS are endless, there are a few lessons I took away from my second NOLS experience that are extremely applicable not only for future military officers, but for anyone seeking to develop their judgment and group leadership skills.
1. Recognize that tensions run high in stressful situations.
While this may seem obvious, it took a considerable amount of effort to not overreact whenever one of my teammates did something that bothered me. At high altitudes, everything is annoying and difficult. We were together every minute of every day for 23 days straight, and my patience definitely wore thin. The team knew that we were all growing frustrated, and we resolved the issue by creating a rule: If someone does something that bothers you, confront it or let it roll off your back.
Mountaineering allowed for long durations of silent reflection. We spent much of the day trudging through snow, spread out in a single-file line. If something bothered me, and I did nothing to change it, it would rile me up throughout the day’s long trek. It was my job to decide whether it was worth it to confront the issue. If not, I needed to learn to let it go and move on with the mission and the task at hand. This rule improved teamwork and cooperation because people were no longer wasting energy holding grudges. Instead, they focused their efforts on the task at hand.
2. Knowing your limits will help your team more than trying to ignore them.
This was a lesson I learned the hard way. As the only female Midshipman on the expedition, I felt the need to prove myself as just as strong as my peers. At the Naval Academy, we are reminded that the strength of the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. I really did not want to be that weak link and viewed as less useful to the team. As I tried to prevent that label, I ignored what I knew were my strengths and weaknesses. As a cross country runner, I knew I had tons of endurance and mental fortitude, but lacked muscle mass. Regardless, in an attempt to prove myself I volunteered to pull one of the heaviest sleds (in addition to our large packs) on one of the first days of the expedition, a day with more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
I should have listened to my body and recognized that it was too much, but I was too concerned with trying to make the team see I was not going to be a burden. I didn’t give my team enough credit; I thought they would be quick to judge me as weak. My mistake actually cost the team time because half way through the day I realized I could no longer pull the sled and the whole team had to stop to reorganize the loads. Towing the heavy sled also injured my hip which plagued me the rest of the trip. If I had been confident in my own abilities and limits, and had understood from the beginning that my unique set of skills were still contribution-worthy to the team, I would not have ignored my strength limitations.
3. Being responsible for your team members’ lives makes you more aware of the risks you are taking.
By far one of the most challenging days on the trip came as we traveled from the camp at 14,200 feet to the camp at 17,200 feet. Not only was it extremely exposed and the weather not cooperating, but for a large section of the trek we were on a knife-edge pass that was no more than two feet wide. The pass was flanked steep, rocky slopes back down to 14,000 feet. Since we were roped up in teams of four, all of us realized that if one of us slipped, our team would be thrown off their feet as well. This is only one example of how NOLS stresses the real-life consequences of your decisions. The responsibility of the safety of my team added perspective to the gravity of the situation, and I could feel the weight of my actions. Each step was carefully chosen and we walked carefully, making it to camp without incident.
I do not simply carry these lessons with me in order to become a better officer; I apply them in every-day scenarios, as well. NOLS helped me learn how to let someone’s annoying habit roll off my back, how to be confident in what I bring to the table in group projects, and how to evaluate what I ask people to do for me and what risks I put in front of them. My NOLS expeditions were the best leadership development experiences I have had, and I plan on going back to Denali again — leading my own expedition.