Be a Follower First | Leadership Skills from 30 Days in the Cascades

Izzy on the summit of Austera Pk. (8,334’) | You can see Eldorado Pk. to the right in the background.

There’s Just a Windowpane between Me and an Unforgettable Memory

I like hiking in the mountains and I also like snow (a little of that white gold is coming down now outside my window).  Hmmm… I like hiking + I like snow = I love mountaineering.  Why am I in inside right now? As those snowflakes waltz across my windowpane I’m reminded of a snowfield that once was the dance floor for one of the greatest leadership skills lessons I’ve learned in outdoor leadership.

I like slow and steady. I like simple. Let me tell you about a slow, steady, simple principle I learned on a NOLS course.

Thirty Days in the Cascades

At its core, mountaineering is very simple.  Travel as high as you can until there’s nowhere higher to go.  Then descend.  But simple is not the same as easy and early on I realized I needed to grow in my mountaincraft and mature in my leadership skills if I really wanted to achieve my climbing goals.  So, I spent 30 days in the North Cascades on a NOLS Mountaineering course.  Simple enough, right?  I had no doubt that a month of leading in that experiential environment would be life changing.

The North Cascade range is a beautiful and ideal mountaineering classroom.  They were formed with steep rock, deep snow and imposing glaciers, yet its remote summits sit at humble altitudes, thus avoiding high altitude problems.  I couldn’t wait to learn leadership skills but even more I couldn’t wait to display all my leadership potential to my course-mates and my instructors.  By the end of the course, I’d spent 28 straight days in the backcountry.  I counted two days where I was the ‘leader of the day’ and I was just ‘one of the followers’ for 26 backcountry days.

Learn to Follow & You’ll Wake Up One Day & Be a Leader. Then Keep Following and You’ll Remain a Leader

Now, I don’t think the folks at NOLS should change their name to “National Outdoor Follower School”, but I believe that they know aspiring outdoor leaders learn crucial leadership skills as they practice following.  This again is a simple statement, but not easily practiced.  It was frustrating to hike up a steep, uneven talus field when a beautiful crunchy snow field was just 10 steps over and led to the same destination.  But, the leader that day felt more comfortable hiking on talus.  I would have preferred the snow climb, but we still achieved our group objective.  It was exhausting to miss a critical trailhead because the suggestions to check it out were a little too timid and thus our group hiked an extra three hours backtracking to find it.  But, if it hadn’t been for that delay we wouldn’t have experienced that stunning sunset-ascent of Eldorado Peak and I wouldn’t have gotten my all-time favorite summit pic!

How important is it to learn that there is more than one way to safely and successfully achieve a team goal?  How healthy is it to learn to keep your mouth shut and let your leaders vision unfold?  As a leader, how much do you appreciate being able to lead without constant questions and challenges from those following?  At the same time, learning that a timely and tactful suggestion or question can not only save time and resources, but can help make the leader look better in the eyes of the team.  As a leader, how much do you love that follower who can suggest or nudge in a way that serves the team and adds value to your position?

If you ponder these questions and practice what they imply, you will likely strike a mother load of leadership skills wisdom.

The Best Followers Make the Best Leaders

I am convinced that the best followers make the best leaders. Simple but not easy.  I look back at those 26 days of following as pivotal and irreplaceable in my training and development as a leader.  As I lead an outdoor ministry, I always try to remember what it’s like to be a follower.  And I still try to make those leading me look better.  I am still practicing being a follower.  And when I turn around, there are still people following me.


  • Who’s your favorite example of a follower from the Bible?  Mine is probably Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples.  Ask me why sometime.


About: Izzy | Guest Blogger Bio

Izzy is the manager of Wilderness Ranch, a Young Life backpacking program in Creede CO.  He has climbed high peaks from Alaska down to South America.  A week at summer camp changed his life in 1990 and 2012 will be his 22nd summer of camping ministry.  He and his wife Lisa and their 2 kids spend the off-seasons in Buena Vista, CO.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Be a Follower First | Leadership Skills from 30 Days in the Cascades

  1. This is very true in a lot of ways at Wilderness Ranch especially. Here’s a
    thought I had: as a 2nd year guide, aren’t the 1st year guides really
    the leaders and the teachers because they are constantly putting a 2nd
    year in a place where they HAVE to learn, grow, and lead. And aren’t
    high school students really leading the guides because guides HAVE to
    step up and lead spiritually and technically. As a leader, you’re
    learning and growing only because you have people counting on you to
    learn and grow and lead. We are shaped by those who follow. When it
    comes to shaping leaders and being shaped, following is just as important
    as leading!

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