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Leadership and Preparing to be GREAT at it!

The Beach at Glen Haven, Michigan – 7 miles from South Manitou Island.   August 2003. After a night of severe thunderstorms, a group of 8 expedition members prepares for an open water paddle to the Ranger Station at South Manitou Island. The sky is heavy overcast.   Winds and conditions are calm in the bay. The following is an excerpt from Pathfinder’s Expedition Journal from about the crossing.

Preparing to depart South Manitou ranger station for camp.

9:23 Radio check with Wapiti, GPS operational (with full battery power), back up navigational equipment seems in good order. South Manitou was shrouded by mist and not visible. We launched.

9:46 With three quarters of a mile behind us, we left the protection of Sleeping Bear Point. The wind was suddenly a strong 18 knots to our port side and the waves were about 4 feet. Everyone was asking themselves, “what the hell are we doing out here!?!” It was very unsettling to suddenly feel 150 miles of straight on Lake Michigan winds. It was more unsettling to be crossing one of the most dangerous straights in the Great Lakes under these conditions. But, we pushed on.

I noticed our sweeper, Wapiti, was falling behind with Duck. I radioed him and he reported that Duck was having trouble. Duck didn’t have a rudder and soon Wapiti removed his Red Wings flag from the stern of the kayak. Apparently, the flag acted like a stern sail and was forcing the stern to the starboard making him cock into the wind and progress very difficult. The wind and breaking waves were very loud and yelling to other expedition members was only possible for about 100 feet. Vic saw that we were handling things well and took the inflatable to the wreck of the Morazon.

Papa, inside the shipwreck Morazon.

10:11 My GPS (the only one operational at the time) beeped twice and shut down after we had passed 2 miles (last time I buy Duracell). The lighthouse on South Manitou was still not visible. I checked my compass and changed my heading to 340 degrees. It seemed that I had corrected a little more to port than was necessary, but I trusted the compass. It was difficult to keep the team on course because we tended (naturally) to turn into the wind and waves. The correct heading required that we take the seas almost directly on our port beam.

10:23 I took azimuths from the only two major land features I could see behind me. I marked (as best I could) the intersection of those angles on the map and realized that we were probably drifting off course. I checked my compass and it showed that our heading was between 330 degrees and 350 degrees. I then noticed that the inoperable GPS was close enough to the compass to affect its magnetic function. When I pulled the GPS away the compass floated to around 300 degrees. We had to change course back even more to starboard. This made the wind and waves hit us on the port-stern making it even more difficult. I noticed the other kayakers more than 100 feet away would disappear momentarily as the waves rolled toward me. I estimated the waves were reaching 5-6 feet. Duck was still having trouble. We would occasionally stop our progress to let him caught up. I seemed to miss Vic and his inflatable.

10:33 More than 3 miles down. The only two land features I could see have now disappeared and we were surrounded by steadily building waves and gray haze. I scanned for the South Manitou lighthouse, but only saw the ghostly gray haze. It almost suggested that nothing was out there. I checked my compass constantly. We were doing well in the rough seas, but the total reliance on a compass was eating at my confidence. I considered placing new batteries in the GPS, but the building seas instructed me to keep a firm grasp always on my paddle. My right leg had become completely numb. The loud wind and breaking waves made verbal communication difficult, even on the radio. At this point, I made a mental note to practice hand and arm signals.

10:46 As we approached (as best I could guess) about 4 miles, I noticed a tiny white tower deep in the distant cloud of haze. It was the size of a toothpick tip. THE LIGHTHOUSE! I felt an extreme sense of relief. And we were on a perfect heading for it. I reported this to the team and a few others confirmed the sighting.

11:14 Over 5 1/2 miles complete and our confidence is high. The waves continue to build. We can see the lighthouse keeper’s quarters and the shoreline now.

11:21 After hearing low rumbling in the distance, lightning streaks across the sky directly over the island. A huge rising thunderhead has presented itself over the island. The haze that blocked our view of the island also blocked our view of the thunder clouds.

11: 29 As the thunder continues, I am relieved of my duty as expedition pathfinder and fall back with Duck and Wapiti. With around a mile and a half to go, the rest of the group now goes full speed to shore. I am now sweeping with Wapiti to help Duck, if needed. Because he has no rudder, his progress is very slow. He has to constantly back paddle to keep his craft on course. As Wapiti and I formed up to talk at a distance of 20 feet, he completely disappeared behind a wave. The waves seemed to be well over 6 feet.

<End of Excerpt>

What happen next? We landed, the sky ripped open and rain poured out.   It stopped, the ferry had avoided the weather by waiting a couple of hours before departing. The National Park Services Rangers denied that we had just paddled to the islands.   They have “never heard” of anyone doing that before. We got our permits and set up camp.

View from the deck of the “Crib Lighthouse”.

It has been 11 years since we paddled to the Manitou Islands for our first open water paddling expedition. Back then it was rare for someone to kayak there, today (while still rare) it is much more common for groups of kayakers to paddle out to the islands (it is also common for paddlers to get stranded coming back because they weren’t prepared).   Back then, most outdoor groups told us it was not possible, they said it was crazy, they shunned us as a group of amateurs. Now, the Manitou Islands have become an extremely popular place and kayaking to them is a rite of passage for the sea kayaker.

Being the first to explore, push the limits and do what others say can’t be done isn’t easy. It takes a special person to be a part of such an expedition and a VERY special person to lead them.

As we embark on the task of creating our leadership education section of the School of Expedition Sciences and begin to fill that section with lots of information and courses, I am reminded of the core mission of the Fortune Bay Expedition Team.   Although we sometimes call it our “core mission”, leadership development is actually a byproduct of our activities.   Well, honestly it is both a mission and byproduct – and yet much more.

What we do is a blast.   It is also difficult, sometimes very scary, and often beyond the reach of our participants.   In order to do the things we do, we have to have great leaders.

What makes a great leader? Well honestly . . . I can’t be sure.   There are many leadership styles, techniques and personalities – they all have potential. There isn’t one single set of characteristics that make a great leader. But, I think that we can begin to develop a leader by focusing on a basic characteristic of some great leaders.

Basecamp, North Manitou Island
Basecamp, North Manitou Island

In my view, the first step in leadership starts with some inward reflection.   You have to find your own weaknesses and strengths. You have to understand that you probably don’t know what they are. Frankly, you probably haven’t even tested many of them.

You will have some obstacles to overcome and some unfamiliar ground to cover. So, most of our leaders start with an inward focus – their own personalities, their weak areas, their strong areas, their fears, and their preconceived notions.

Some of our members have years of leadership experience and already are great at it. Of course, they also understand that there is always more to learn, more to understand, and more growth.

We start down this road by setting minimum standards for our leaders.   Radio License, land navigation, survival, basic leadership and a variety of courses to get their skill level where it should be. They need to be competent, confident, safe, and worthy to lead adventures into the wilderness and “Go Farther”.

This is the easy part, but it does take effort, humility and frankly will require our members to jump out of their comfort zone and do things they probably haven’t done before.

It can take some time, but it is usually a great experience. If someone doesn’t accomplish everything, that is OK. We hope they have at least, learned something.

Once they have accomplished the bare basics, we start to encourage them to begin their outward focus.

Anyone that has led a long term, difficult project knows that leadership is “lonely”.   No one cares about your feelings and emotions. In fact, followers often steal the energy of a leader to improve themselves. You have to be comfortable with self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.   You have to do what you do for their benefit – rarely your own.   You have to believe in them, understand them, and guide them to do their best.   Finally, you have to inspire them and manage them.   That isn’t easy.

To begin down this road, we have to understand human behavior, human interaction, motivations and a whole list of psychological, sociological, emotional and other concepts. These concepts require that we first be comfortable with who we are and comfortable with who everyone else is.

This is when “outward focus” begins and when true leadership takes place and it is a complex task. Frankly, it is very difficult and for an unprepared individual, it can be a mildly devastating experience. Often it happens to many of our members to some degree. It can manifest as a personal conflict, sudden lack of confidence, embarrassment or any number of “tough” situations.   Recovery from this takes some time, but often the member emerges as a much more developed leader.

We have learned over the years, that understanding basic concepts of human behavior helps this process along and helps to eliminate the emotional “devastations” that can occur. Understanding human behavior helps us put these experiences in perspective.   It allows for understanding of the dynamics taking place.   It also turns our focus outward and prevents us from taking someone else’s struggle as a personal attack on us.

Sunrise over South Manitou Island.
Sunrise over South Manitou Island.

So, with that, I encourage all of our future professional members to spend some time in our leadership section of the SOES website.   We are adding courses and concepts that will help you with the “outward” focus, but most importantly, it will help you grow and expand to meet the challenges of being a “great leader”.

As always, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts, comments, questions and concerns.

  • Chuck “Pathfinder” Hayden, Director of Expedition Resources