Adventure, Kayaking and Success

small business strategyBefore I entered the marketing world, I spent six years working in the field of outdoor education. During my time with UTC Outdoors, Camp YI, and the Webb School I’ve done everything from whitewater kayaking to rock climbing to one very almost unfortunate sky diving incident.

As an outdoor instructor, I’ve led over 30 trips into the backcountry and logged hundreds of hours of experience. It was during those trips that I learned more about leadership and communication than the rest of my earthly experiences combined. Here are 5 of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned so far:

  1. Be Cow-Like

While attending my Wilderness First Responder certification, my instructor (and outdoors legend) Justin Padgett (aka “The Padge”) told us in class one day to “be cow-like” when in rescue situations. He was referring to the point in an accident when a first responder shows up and sees chaos around them.

The tendency, for outdoor educators and business people alike, is to jump into action. But have you ever seen an EMT run? Probably not.

Cows don’t jump into action—ever. They stand still and chew and think until they decide to move and Justin’s advice was to do the same. The parallel to the business world is painfully obvious. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, we must take time to observe before jumping into action.

Because jumping into an uninformed solution is often times worse than not jumping at all. Smart Businesses (and cows) take time to make the right choice.

  1. Understand Inherit Risks

Risk management is the largest part of any outdoor educators job. Our first goal is to make sure that our participants make it back safely and the second goal is that they have the most fun they’ve ever had. There’s an expression in the industry called “inherent risk” which refers to the risk that cannot be taken out of an outdoor adventure activity.

In the business world, we all experience inherent risks.

Inherent risks are different than other risks in that they cannot be avoided—but they can be minimized. No amount of preparation can guarantee that no one will twist an ankle on a backpacking trip. But proper planning and preparation can minimize that risk.

Understanding inherent risk in business makes professionals more trustworthy. By explaining to your clients that there are certain unavoidable risks, but that you’ve taken all the necessary precautions to prepare—you sound more educated and less like a used car salesman (I GUARANTEE THIS CAR WILL RUN FOR 300,000 MILES!).

  1. Put in the Individual Time & Learn from your Peers

In order to be a good outdoor leader, you must possess a certain level of expertise. To gain expertise you must learn. Learning means putting in the individual time to make sure that when it’s your turn to take the reigns, you’re ready. In a constantly evolving business landscape, we must be learners before teachers.

For instance, when I started at UTC Outdoors, I was terrified of whitewater. It took 2 years and several trips as a participant before I learned enough from my peers to be able to take the reigns and lead a whitewater kayaking trip.  The same applies to business.

Want to understand the marketing budget? Take some time to learn from the marketing team.

  1. Understand when to Lead, Follow, and Take Over

As previously discussed, self awareness is one of the top strengths and most deadly weaknesses of an outdoor educator. Under estimating your abilities can mean you don’t take charge and over estimating your abilities can mean you get people into real life danger.

  • Lead—when your expertise is greater than those around you/you’ve been put into a position of authority. Leadership means guiding—not micromanaging.

  • Follow—when your skill set is not superior to your peers/they have been placed in a position of authority. Follower and inferior are not synonyms. A good leader knows when it is time to follow.

  • Take Over—when crisis must be avoided and you know how to stop them. Think back to an outdoor educators first goal (safety). There were times on the river/mountains where people’s perception of me was irrelevant as I understood their physical lives were in danger. If your business is headed for disaster and you are in charge, it may be time to take over.

This is much more rare in the business world, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. This role is almost exclusively reserved for people in leadership positions.

To read about my first time whitewater kayaking on my personal blog, click here.

image credit: Rosemary Ratcliff/