Chris Bolling
Establishing Team and Leadership Norms

A few thoughts from the backcountry of Jackson Hole

I took four days off this week to spend some time in the backcountry of Jackson Hole. It was four days of boot-packing, challenging skiing, and team building.

The snowpack has been incredibly unstable this year, so avalanche awareness and safety were key this week, as was leadership. When skiing unfamiliar and potentially dangerous backcountry terrain, it's vital to establish leadership within the group to arrive safely back in bounds.

While we were being led by experienced and credentialed mountain guides, it was important to establish team and leadership norms. Here are a few things that became important during the week (and I lean heavily on the National Outdoor Leadership School leadership model here; it's brilliant):

Designated leadership: The leader was responsible for route planning, safety, and effective communication. The leader took responsibility for the beacon checks and team skill assessment and set the plan for the day. The leader also took clear responsibility for illuminating the hazards of each pitch - a cliff band, rock outcroppings, and other potential risk areas.

Active followership: So that the team did not fall into the heuristic trap of being blindly led into the backcountry (we engaged an expert and it's easy to fall into the trap of blindly trusting that expertise), our roles were to ask the questions that needed to be asked, bring our observations to the table, read the avalanche and weather forecasts, and ensure that we were actively engaging in the process so that we had a safe, fun, and successful tour.

Peer leadership: When skiing with a team, things happen. A peer might have gotten off route and needed support to get back on track. Of course, falls and crashes happen, and peers must take responsibility to support their teammates. If something was broken, if we noticed that a peer might have a venting zipper open before a powder run, or if buckles or straps had come undone, we each took responsibility for supporting each other along the way.

Personal leadership: Our personal responsibility was to ensure we were prepared for a successful tour. We needed to arrive fit, with the appropriate skills to navigate the terrain. Our equipment needed to be in order and well maintained, and we each had to take responsibility for nutrition, hydration, and mindset. Without addressing our personal skills and fitness level, we would hinder the group and become a potential safety risk for others.

The NOLS leadership model has always served me as a business leader - the parallels should be obvious - and in this case, the model was on full display in a risky "expedition" setting. It amplified that we take on many leadership roles inside organizations and that none should be taken for granted.

And, for what it's worth, the week was epic! The final day delivered knee to waist-deep, untracked powder - and a finely honed team to take advantage of it!

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