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Leadership and the Grand Canyon

A leadership lesson from the Grand Canyon: When we lived in Phoenix, my wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon annually. While most tourists visit the South Rim – more than 5 million annually – less than 10% of that number visit the North Rim, and far fewer chose to hike from rim-to-rim. Therefore, hiking down from the South Rim, overnighting at Phantom Ranch at the very bottom of the Canyon, then hiking up the Kaibab Trail to the North Rim gives you a much less-traveled and pristine experience. And some awesome vistas.

And, unfortunately, a seemingly endless path of switchbacks. I read that of the 14-mile-long hike from the bottom of the Canyon to the top of the North Rim, fully five miles at the end of the path consists of relentless switchbacks.

I’ve led several groups of friends and colleagues on this rim-to-rim hike. Each time I did, I observed the same phenomenon: while we all dreaded the final North Rim switchbacks, they also motivated us to keep going. Here’s the reason why: each switchback varied in length from approx. 50 yards to several hundred yards. And when you turn the corner to start up that specific switchback, it is all you can see. You put your head down, you tighten up your backpack straps, you take a deep breath, and you put one foot in front of each other as you start the next stretch. Your mind is freed from the reality of the miles ahead as you simply push toward the end of this switchback.

Recently I shared a blog about my opinion of Leadership Resiliency. While some talk of inspiring leadership and others speak of visionary leadership, I’m convinced oftentimes that the best leaders are simply the ones who keep on keeping on. And that’s the analogy with the switchbacks on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. While the vistas are awesome and the experience is pristine, the switchbacks are what makes the trip. Knowing that all you must do is conquer the next one lets you continue your assault on the Rim.

Leader – what’s the next thing you need to do?