The art of being a follower: 8 key attributes to being a good role player in the outdoors

You’re not always the top dog out here. But you will have a role, and how you fill it will go a long way toward success or failure.

Last week I wrote about eight attributes of a good outdoors leader. I believe those traits carry into other areas of life, be it at home, at work or in any organization you’re a part of.

But not everyone can be the leader. For every good sergeant, there needs to be solid foot soldiers. Not everyone can be LeBron. Sometimes you need to be a role player coming off the bench. Same goes for the outdoors.

Most of the time, you’re not going to be the leader. For lack of a better term, you’re going to be a follower, and there’s an art to it. Good followers have their roles to play, and when done right, they’re a major part of a team’s success, wherever that endeavor takes them. So let’s take a look at that.

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Do an inventory or your skills and experience. What are you good at? Where could you use some work? If you know your strengths, you know what you have to offer the group. Identifying where you’re weak will give you an opportunity to bone up on skills. Blithely glossing over areas where you’re soft won’t help you or your partners. And if a task on a particular adventure is way over your head, consider bowing out until you’ve gained enough skill to participate and contribute. For me, that weakness is rock climbing. I can do the simple sport stuff, but if people are counting on me to lead climb multipitch routes, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Worse, they might be endangered. And never lie or exaggerate about your experience. As is the case with the outdoor leader, it’s also true with the follower: You’ll get found out and instantly lose credibility, and worse, you might put your group at risk.
  2. Be a good listener. If you’re not the top dog, consider your time on that adventure as a good place to listen and learn from those with experience. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned by listening and watching people I’m with. More often than not, experienced adventurers are willing to share their knowledge and advice. Then you can put those lessons into practice and raise your game. Driving 4WD roads, backcountry diet, ice axe and crampon technique, fishing trout streams – my friends have taught me a lot that I couldn’t gain from reading a book or watching a video.
  3. Speak up. Rarely is there a time when the leader of a group rules with an iron fist and you’re not allowed to give input. If you see something amiss, point it out. If you have an idea on how to tackle a problem, say something. Your viewpoint might just be the key to solving a puzzle others don’t see. Communication is a major factor when it comes to a successful outdoor adventure.
  4. Be a contributor. While it’s nice and all to put in your two cents, you’re going to need to give more than that. You need to carry your weight when it comes to the basics. Whether it’s bringing the proper gear and provisions for a trip or sharing in camp chores, step up. If you only enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labors, you’re guaranteed to be the type of person who never gets invited to future adventures. And yeah, that includes gas money and trash hauling. Proactively seek opportunities to get things done, then do it.
  5. Be prepared. There’s that old Boy Scouts motto! But seriously, being part of a group means showing up ready. This encompasses a lot. You need to know enough about your trip to be aware of what you should bring in terms of gear and food. You should also have working knowledge of how to use that gear. And you should, as best you can, be in shape to tackle whatever awaits you in the backcountry. If you’re part of a backpacking trip that’s heading into the high country, do yourself and your team a favor and put in some miles before you show up at the trailhead. And don’t be the guy who bogarts other people’s gear and food because you forgot or didn’t know what to bring.
  6. Ask questions. If you’re unsure about something, an unasked question is a wasted opportunity, and potentially a dangerous oversight. Let’s say you’re testing some of your gear before a trip, but it’s not working like it should. Give your more experienced buddy a call, or go to the store where you bought it and find out what’s wrong. That sheepish phone call or the time spent with a salesperson is far better than not knowing how to do something and letting that fester all the way into the backcountry. The same could be said for not knowing how to undertake a specific task. Let’s say you’re going to do some kayaking or canoeing, but you’re unsure how to steer the craft. Find someone who knows what they’re doing and ask for help. You’ll enjoy the activity a lot more, and you might just save yourself from unneeded risk on the water. I could go on, but you get the idea. If you don’t know something and never ask a question about it, your ignorance – and the consequences of it – is on you. But it also might affect everyone else. Even if it’s a stupid question, ask anyway.
  7. Help others who lack your experience. Not every “follower” is a noob. You may be in a support role, but have extensive backcountry experience. Some of your buddies could benefit from that. Some helpful advice or just hanging with your newbie friend can go a long way toward strengthening a team, and this can be done without usurping the role of the leader. I can’t count the number of men and women who have had this role for me, and I’ve been blessed by their guidance.
  8. Be a unifier. Being a unifying influence in a group has less to do with being a cheerleader and more to do with being the kind of person people would travel with again. It’s critical in team environments to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. People who are disagreeable, dominate discussions, lord their experience over others or take advantage of other people’s efforts are fracturing influences. No one wants to make camp with that type of person. But how about the gal or guy who chips in their fair share and then some? Who listens as intently as they talk? Who helps less experienced team members, or who humbly accepts guidance? You know, the anti-diva? Those people get invited back.

So there you go. If you look at last week’s post, there are similarities to this one, and that’s no accident. Part of becoming a good leader is learning how to be a good follower. And being a good follower is a great way to learn how effective teams work, a lesson that might prove handy when, one day, you become the one people look to for guidance.

Bob Doucette

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Eight key attributes to being a leader in the outdoors

Being a leader or a mentor in the outdoors is more than just telling people what to do or where to go. Much more.

I’m lucky to be blessed with the company of folks who could show me the ropes in the outdoors. As the years have gone by, I’ve been able to share things that I’ve learned. In between all that is a bunch of give-and-take when it comes to being the leader or the learner.

The more time you spend out there, the better the chances are that you’ll end up being a teacher, leader or even a mentor. How you perform this task can have a huge impact on how well people grow in their own outdoor pursuits. Here are eight things you ought to know:

  1. Be an open book. Be honest about your experiences, whether it’s the activity at hand or the place you’re in. When people ask you questions, give the best answers you can. And do it in a way that’s accessible and clear. Clarity, honesty and approachability are key when people look to you for guidance. And never lie about or exaggerate your experience and qualifications. If you do and get found out, all your credibility is immediately lost.
  2. Let people learn some things for themselves. Part of growing into a role is trying things, making mistakes, and learning from the experience. You don’t want to be the person who micromanages someone’s adventure. It’s annoying, and eventually people will tune you out. That said…
  3. Be assertive when the stakes are high. There are some situations that call for a firm hand. High-risk activities like mountaineering and rock climbing are no places to stay quiet when you can see something about to go terribly wrong. If you wander up to a bear or a buffalo and your buddy wants to get closer for a wildlife selfie, that’s a good time to speak up. Same might be said if you’re about to ski into an avalanche-prone area, or if a big thunderhead begins to form over the mountain you’re ascending.
  4. Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do or haven’t done yourself. This is an integrity thing. You should be willing to do the hard, or tedious, or unglamorous tasks. Lead by example and do those things. Demonstrating this will go a long way with a group.
  5. Be the leader, but create a team. History is filled with top-down taskmasters in famous expeditions. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But you can be guaranteed that if your partners believe they have a say in things and that their input is not only valued but expected, that creates buy-in. It can also be helpful to get different perspectives on problems you might not have seen.
  6. Listen to the team, but if you’re the leader, make decisions. After you’ve gained input from your group, you don’t want to dawdle in overanalysis. That often leads to inaction. Consider the facts and ideas, then make a decision. This is especially true in emergency situations, where decision-making is critical. This is one area where you don’t want paralysis by analysis.
  7. Admit when you’re wrong. If you’ve chosen a course of action and it was wrong, fess up. Everyone will probably know anyway. Denying it will only erode your position as a leader or mentor. People can forgive a mistake. It’s harder to forgive stubborn arrogance or denial.
  8. Strive for future adventures. By this, I mean that you should be the type of person someone would partner with again. Keep things enjoyable, safe and fruitful for your partner or group. In the back of your mind, let your personal conduct and your competence make those around you think, “When I’m going to do X, I want this guy/gal with me.”

So there you go. The great thing about these ideas is that they apply not only in the outdoors, but in everyday life. Got some thoughts of your own? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

Bob Doucette