Good judgment and thoughtful decision-making are critical components of effective leadership. But in the outdoors, a leader also has to cope with physiological, psychological, and environmental factors that can greatly affect the outcome of a situation. When crisis looms, weighing risks versus benefits can be a helpful guide to problem solving.
Here are a couple scenarios and possible responses to ponder that come straight from AMC’s Mountain Leadership School Student Manual. Put yourself in the leader’s boots: What would you do?
Remember as you read these that, as AMC Leadership Training Manager Jessica Wilson emphasizes, “Not all decisions are black and white, and a clear solution may not present itself. A leader’s awareness and experience will help guide the final decision in real life.”
You are leading a group of 10 hikers in a remote wilderness area that is unfamiliar to everyone in the group. The group is on a marked trail when one hiker notices a nearby hill and suggests that it would be fun to bushwhack to the top. Four other members of the group think this is a great idea. The hill is well below tree line, and off-trail hiking is permitted in the area. As you survey the steep slope leading to the summit, you notice many rocks and boulders. From the way they are perched, you become concerned that the rocks and boulders might be unstable. The five hikers are eager to get started, and they are trying to sell you and the others on their plan.
As a Leader, What Should You Do?
- Solicit everyone’s opinion, and if the group is in favor of the excursion, agree to proceed with the assumption that if all are careful, the group can avoid any hazards posed by unstable rocks and boulders.
- Mention your concerns to the group and agree to proceed to the foot of the hill where you will then reassess the hazards.
- Carefully explain your concerns to the group, stressing that if any rocks or boulders became dislodged, they could easily kill or seriously injure anyone in their path. Emphasize the challenges and benefits of your intended route.
Evaluating the Responses
The problem is that members of your group are proposing a route that you believe might be hazardous. In a situation such as this, evaluating risks and benefits can greatly simplify the decision-making process. Alternative approaches to addressing this problem might include the following:
- (Solicit everyone’s opinion….) If you had reason to believe the rocks and boulders on the steep slope were unstable, then this approach would be reckless and irresponsible. There would be little or no time for people to get out of the way of falling rocks or boulders, which would likely kill or seriously injure anybody in their path.
- (Mention your concerns….) This approach might not be viable because even at the foot of the hill, it would probably be difficult for you to determine the stability of the rocks and boulders. Also, once the group began the excursion, people might be reluctant to turn back.
- (Carefully explain your concerns….) In this situation, the third alternative would offer the best solution. The risk of death or serious injury resulting from someone being hit by a falling rock or boulder would outweigh the satisfaction that the hikers might derive by scrambling up an interesting but untested slope.
You are leading a group of 10 people on a day hike in New York’s Harriman State Park on a Sunday in early August, and the weather is sunny and warm. After lunch, two hikers inform you that instead of continuing with the group, they would like to leave early. One of them is an experienced hiker in his 70s who has participated on many group hikes in the park; the other is an inexperienced hiker in her late 20s. Despite your efforts to convince the hikers to stay with the group, they insist on splitting. After informing them of the risks associated with their decision, you discuss with them the quickest, easiest way out and provide them with a map on which you have outlined their route. The two of them depart and the rest of the group continues on the hike.
When you return to the parking lot at the conclusion of your hike, shortly after 3 p.m., you discover the cars of the two hikers parked in the parking lot, with the hikers nowhere in sight. The boyfriend of the missing female hiker had remained with the group, and he informs you that his girlfriend had planned to wait in the car until he returned. You learn that one of her reasons for leaving early was so that the older hiker would not have to walk back alone. You wait another 15 minutes, but still the hikers have not appeared.
As a Leader, What Should You Do?
- Assume that the two missing hikers are seriously lost or that one of them is hurt or ill, and immediately call the park rangers for help.
- Assume the missing hikers are either walking very slowly or became temporarily lost, and that they will appear soon. Plan to remain in the parking lot and wait at least an hour before doing anything else.
- Start looking for the missing hikers yourself accompanied by any volunteers.
- Take the attitude that since these two individuals chose to leave the hike, you are not responsible for them.
Evaluating the Responses
The problem is that two hikers have failed to return to the meeting location at the expected time. Neither you nor anyone at the scene knows what became of them. They may be lost, one of them may be hurt or ill, or they may simply be slow in walking back. Alternative approaches to addressing this problem might include the following:
- (…missing hikers are seriously lost….) This would be the safest choice—but not necessarily the most sensible. Just because the experienced hiker has participated on many group hikes in the park does not mean that he knows how to navigate on his own. If either of the two were hurt or ill, the victim might require medical attention as soon as possible. But calling the rangers immediately may be over-reacting. The two missing hikers are not unreasonably late. The weather is warm and dry, and about four more hours of daylight remain.
- (…missing hikers are either walking very slowly….) This might be a sensible approach. After lunch, your group proceeded at a relatively fast pace with only brief stops for water. Maybe the two who left early decided to walk slowly and make frequent rest stops. Even if the hikers did get lost, if they studied the map, they might be able to find their way, and they also might encounter other hikers who could give them directions.
- (Start looking….) This might also be a sensible approach. As long as you are careful about hiking out only a set distance or amount of time and there is someone to remain behind in the parking lot, this approach might help you solve your problem more quickly than other alternatives. However, if the missing hikers were on an alternate trail or if the search was too lengthy, this process might create additional problems.
- (Take the attitude….) This approach would be careless and irresponsible, since the two hikers are obviously missing. One of them is over 70 years old and the other is a very inexperienced hiker. If the situation had involved hikers who had chosen to leave your hike to go off on their own, and you were unaware of where they went or when they planned to return, then this would be a more reasonable approach.
Scenarios excerpted from AMC’s Mountain Leadership School Student Manual (available to MLS participants only).
- Don’t miss Ty Wivell’s accompanying feature story, Learning to Lead, from the March/April 2014 issue of AMC Outdoors.
- Learn more about AMC’s Mountain Leadership School and check for upcoming programs online.
- Read about outdoor leadership skills in Alex Kosseff’s AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership (AMC Books), which covers the ins and outs of group dynamics, decision making, and risk management.