7 lessons in teamwork from the trails

Annaliza Nieve, Creative Director
Posted on Jan 12, 2022

For the second year in a row, I have welcomed the first light of the year on a sunrise hike in the White Mountains. This year, I found myself thinking about the lessons in teamwork and leadership that I’ve learned on the trails.

Most people know me as a four-season hiker, though winter is my favorite time to be on the trails. I recently became an assistant organizer for my hiking group, and as I rallied a team for a 3 a.m. wake-up call to greet 2022 from a summit, I reflected on the leadership skills I’ve learned in the mountains – and the teamwork it takes to navigate the elements. Is this what we need in the office?

Lesson 1: Your culture is your brand

Our group’s culture is very strong and well-known amongst the White Mountain hiking community. We make sure anyone joining the hike has the right gear, the right food and water, and especially the right attitude. We triple-check the weather, the night before, the morning of – and even on the 3-hour drive up because a sudden shift could be disastrous. Just to be sure we're aware of the danger, we exchange stories and cautionary tales about all the mountain disasters we've heard about. At the trailhead, we're all on the same page – packed with the 10 essentials, knowledge of the route, and ready to tackle the closest thing to wild…within driving distance. There are other groups who are more casual about their trips. Not us. Our over communication of safety and preparedness is our thing. Was it our habits that built the culture or the other way around? Our routines and our reputation are the same. Just like in the office, our approach to teamwork is our culture; and our culture is our brand.

Lesson 2: Move at the pace of the slowest member

We were taught by a great volunteer leader that we should hike together at the pace of the slowest hiker. We go up as one; we go down as one. If we get accidentally separated, we wait at trail crossings. If we purposely get separated, we’re behaving “off-brand”. Just like in the office, if your team isn’t moving in unison, you’re not as efficient. And if you’re not in lockstep, you could be hurting yourselves in ways you might not immediately see.

Lesson 3: Plan well for the unplanned

On the trail, backpacks are stuffed with extra clothes, extra food, emergency kits, and a variety of traction devices – mostly for the what if, not the what is. We know that when the unexpected happens, we’ve got tools. But since we’re individuals who approach problem-solving differently, I’ve got French Onion Soup in my Hydroflask while someone else has salt tabs, and another electrolyte chews. If anyone starts to cramp up, we’ve got it covered. Be grateful for all the different ways team members solve problems. Your group is your Swiss Army Knife.

Lesson 4: Be supportive and positive

In winter, the wind chill can cause you to lose body heat very fast if you stop moving, so we coordinate our rest breaks and don't stop for lunch. Instead, we carry bitesize, low-water content foods that won't freeze: nuts, dehydrated fruit, and Fig Newtons. If someone's low on energy, barely a beat passes before a hiking partner is rattling off all the options in their pack to pep that person up. "I've got some beef jerky." "I’ve got some chocolate." The health and comfort of our partners are as paramount as our own. We know, if one person stumbles, falls, or doesn't feel well, we can't push on unless we lift that person up. "You can do it; it's only five more minutes." Our favorite words no matter where we are en route.

Lesson 5: Attend to the first sign of trouble

While we’re hiking, if anyone feels the slightest hotspot caused by tight boots or a bunched-up sock, anything that could turn an annoying rub into a blister, we encourage a speedy repair job. Often, that person will try to put it off or deal with it until “later” becomes “too late.” So I have learned, if there’s a rub, stop, assess, and attend to it. The sooner, the better. Stop debating, just accept the rule. When something isn’t working, take a breath and focus on a fix. Doctoring the little stuff can prevent the holy &#!*s.

Lesson 6: Keep an open mind – even if it looks bad

This particular New Year’s Day, the forecast was cloudy with a chance of rain, dampening our hopes of seeing a sunrise. One of my companions asked about the weather, “But will we even get views?” My answer: “I guarantee you, the sun will rise.” I thought to myself, “It won’t be that bad, the snow-dusted trees at dawn will be a sight.” Driving over to the trailhead with my windshield wipers whipping back and forth and my headlights barely breaking through the fog, it wasn’t looking good. But a few hours later, hot pink and orange streaks pierced the sky. Then from the summit, the clouds separated by a slender sliver above the horizon, just enough to see the crown of the sun peak through before disappearing into the white canvas above it. The thing is, facing unwelcome challenges when you’re in your element usually has a silver lining.

Lesson 7: The old adage about the journey? Yep.

Good teams are aligned, individually capable, but collectively stronger. Great teams go together, protect each other, and take the wins and disappointments in stride. It's all part of the journey. And best of all, it works because we trust each other. We're in it together. So hold up your teammates. Prepare yourselves with the gear you need to get you where you want to go. And try to keep each other good company along the way. Because though the summit is always rewarding, the climb is 95% of the experience.