It was a long day in the Adirondack Mountains in upper New York State. There were eleven of us in our patrol, and we were on day five of a 10-day backpacking voyage.
We paused for a quick break on the trail to rest our shoulders, grab some water, and look at the map. Our plan for the day was to reach the summit of Whiteface Mountain, one of the largest peaks in the Adirondacks.
“Where are we?” was a common question that would be lobbed into the discussion from someone in the group whenever our sherpas, the two guides for this patrol, pulled out the trail map and looked at the compass.
“I think we’re right here,” said one of the sherpas as he pointed his finger at a tiny squiggly line on the map. Then the two of them began to talk out loud as they tried to make sense of the path we had just walked.
The group trusted the leader and nodded in acceptance. We had enjoyed the brief pit stop but knew we had to keep moving to accomplish all that was ahead of us. He pointed us down the path curving to the left and off we went.
It wasn’t until about another two hours into our ascent up the mountain that we stopped for a little huddle. We were beginning to have some gorgeous views from the trees at various spots along the trail and the group was getting into a nice groove.
This time, though, the sherpas dropped their packs and quietly walked away from the group for their secret meeting with the map. A few minutes later they approached the group with devilish smiles.
“Hey guys, remember a while back when we thought we were at this point on the map?” they said. “Well, it turns out we made a little mistake and have gotten a tad off course.”
“How far off course?” a very astute group member questioned.
“Quite a bit,” the guide responded with a slight quiver in his voice. “You see, we thought we were a bit further down the trail than we actually were, and we ended up taking the wrong path.”
After a moment of silence, a few giggles broke the tension in the group. I may or may not have made a wisecrack about the helicopter coming any moment.
“You see, we’re not even on the right mountain,” the sherpa said as he pointed his finger through the trees and directly at the peak through the trees to our right. “This is Mckenzie Mountain and over there is Whiteface Mountain.”
Now giggles really kicked in, mostly as a coping mechanism for many in the group who were now doing the math in their head and realizing that their long day had just gotten longer.
We had a decision before us, either backtrack all the way back to that fork in the road and essentially start our day over or take the more direct route, which was to continue up and over Mckenzie Mountain and then tackle Mountain #2.
We decided to embrace the challenge and to take it as an opportunity to summit two peaks in one day and see some breathtaking views. We accomplished the task (although it was a long and grueling day), and when we finally got to our resting spot to set up our tents, it was pitch black and we were exhausted. It was in that moment that we relearned this valuable lesson – always know where point A is!
I think back on that moment when we conferred with the sherpas ealier in the day and they pointed to the map to show us where we were (our Point A). Not one of us spoke up to say, “Are we sure that is actually where we are?” or “Hold on a second. Let’s take another look to see if we truly have done that far already.” Nobody questioned or engaged in the process of identifying where we were. We just blindly trusted and fell in line.
We knew our Point Z (our destination, Whiteface Mountain), but we weren’t accurate about where we currently were on the map. We didn’t know our true starting point. Our assessment was off.
Whenever I begin a new leadership development program or culture-shaping initiative with a company or organization, the first step is always to Assess. We have to figure out where the individuals and the group currently are and if we know where Point A really is. Knowing the starting point, i.e. Assessing, is critical.
Jason Barger is the globally celebrated author of Step Back from the Baggage Claim, ReMember, and the newly released book Thermostat Cultures, as well as a coveted keynote speaker and leadership consultant. More importantly, he’s striving to be an above average father, husband, and friend.
Follow me on Twitter @JasonVBarger.
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