Taking A Hike

In this new position at Eastman, I am thinking nonstop about the concept of leadership. How is it defined? How is it understood? How is it cultivated? And how can students, Music Leadership masters’ student and all others, find their own leadership voice, both now and into the future?

Thanks to three thoughtful and inspiring conversations (two last weekend in South Carolina, then again today with friends close to my new Rochester home), I’m understanding, from a different perspective, that leadership is an outgrowth of our own individual experiences. It sounds deceivingly simple, and perhaps it is. Yet in all three of these conversations, the friends and colleagues shared how particular moments in their lives helped to define and/or clarify an understanding of their own individual self; this, in turn, led to some type of personal growth and continued learning attributed to the broader topic of ‘developing leadership.’

It was just over two years ago that I hiked Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, summiting under a full moon and billions of stars. This experience is the most memorable event that I have experienced in life … and perhaps the craziest adventure that I have (yet) been on. I think of this bucket-list trip every day. As more time elapses, I find even more meaning in the experience.

When embarking on the 8-day hike, this was perhaps the very first time that I understood what it meant to be totally present in an experience. A few days in to the hike, I remember thinking to myself: the days are long, but the week is very short. I had no distractions. No technology. No deadlines. No presentations. No meetings. No laundry or cleaning or home projects. My sole focus on was climbing a mountain. I slept in a tent for the first time in my life. I woke when the guides woke us. I ate when the food was prepared. My sole purpose on that trip was to hike - up for 6.5 days, down for 1.5 days. I enjoyed the company of the friends on the trip - sharing stories, sharing life experiences, and sharing this epic adventure together. The single focus on my path was to experience this journey. I trusted the guides completely, and followed what unfolded in front of me. This kind of focus has almost been achieved in a three concert performances … though in those distinctly memorable concerts, I also have vivid memories of a note or two missed, or something out of tune, or running out of breath unexpectedly, or catching my mind wandering away from the music. This hike was the first time in my life that I had only one single goal, one single focus, and no other competing priority to distract from the experience.

The other memorable part of this adventure was summit night. The guides woke us at 11PM, fed us ‘breakfast’ at 11:30PM, and we sat out at midnight under the light of the full moon and stars. Within the first half hour, my stomach started acting up (the first time the entire trip). I couldn’t keep up with the group, so broke off with a guide at my side. I kept moving slower and slower and slower. I remember the feeling of wanting to curl up and go to sleep ‘right there’, next to any one of the huge lava rocks that were perched on the mountain. To avoid sleep, I started playing a mental game. If I kept moving for 50 steps, I could rest my head on my trekking poles and for a count of 10 breaths. I continued counting for nearly eight and a half hours that night … 50 steps, 10 breaths; 50 steps, 10 breaths; 50 steps, 10 breaths. While I now realize I was likely having some amount of altitude sickness, my stubbornness and determination kept me going, even when the goal felt unachievable. My guide and I took a small break at sunrise, watching the sun burst onto the horizon, illuminating Mt. Mawenzi and the Tanzanian and Kenyan landscape below. The sunlight gave me a renewed burst of energy, helping me to push through the final 75-ish minutes that it took to summit …. and yes, I continued counting nearly the entire way. The hike / skreeing back down to base camp took all of 90 minutes, where I was welcomed by a nap and warm food. After lunch, we started our 2-day / 16-hour journey of downhill hiking. Still flying high from the excitement of summiting, each step down was a reminder of the experience and of ill-fitting and inappropriately laced hiking boots. There weren’t any alternatives to getting down to the park exit gate, so instead three toenails were the causality of the adventure.

As I think about these two memories, and the entire visit to Tanzania, I know that the way I view and interact in the world has fundamentally changed. Through this trip, I see parts of my personality that can (and are) advantageous when faced with a challenge. I also see how those personality traits can be (and have been) a detriment to my own limitations. Yet I, too, have learned the most about my own leadership from this experience and other challenges that have pushed my limits. There absolutely is value in the ‘doing’ and enjoying the experience along the way; in the recent conversations and my own analysis, the learning comes well after the fact, in the reflection, inquiry, analysis, and curiosity.

My colleague and Eastman supervisor remarked to me shortly after I was hired, it’s a good thing you’ve climbed Kilimanjaro; starting the Music Leadership degree will be a serious uphill climb, too. While he’s absolutely right, I think the metaphor of this hike extends well beyond the heavy lift of the initial start-up year. I’m understanding the transferability of this experience into a deeper and more nuanced understanding of my own self as a leader, and additionally am questioning how this type of personal analysis of past experiences can be recreated for others to better understand their own individual leadership discovery and insights.

Studying leadership can help us all to better understand skillsets, tools, and ‘feeling’ more prepared for navigating challenges and decisions. Yet our actions within experiences, large or small, ultimately define who we are and how we act as a leader. Changing these actions and decisions will only happen when there’s a willingness to (1) ask ourselves the hard questions, (2) create the space to reflect on those questions, and (3) choose to continue experiencing and navigating challenges to repeat the leadership development cycle.