It’s a life lesson that I won’t soon forget. Almost fifteen years ago, I, and four of my best friends, were faced with a monumental decision with life and death ramifications. We had just summited Long’s Peak in Colorado. On the way down one of us began to deal with a severe case of Altitude Sickness at the same time a major lightening storm forced us to seek shelter and ride out the weather.
As the storm passed, darkness set in. With the effects of altitude sickness getting worse we were faced with an impossible decision; traverse the dangerous Boulder Field in the dark where one wrong step could mean injury or death to a climber, or wait till morning and possibly risk one of us having a stroke on the side of a mountain, hours from medical help.
Cairns are man-made rock piles, paced at regular intervals to indicate and mark a course of direction.
We chose to take our chances in the dark. And if it weren’t for the “cairns,” the story may not have had the happy ending that it does.
Cairns are man-made rock piles, paced at regular intervals, to indicate and mark a course or direction. They are commonly found on paths across stony or barren terrain. Cairns are often in places where the trail direction is hard to discern. They can also indicate a points of danger such as a sudden drop, or a place where climbers should show caution.
The day before we had navigated up through Bolder Field by walking from cairn to cairn. As we passed them, one of us would add a stone to the pile as a way of preserving the marker for the next climbers. None of us imagined we were preserving the waypoints that would guide us to safety just a few hours later… but we were so glad we did.
As leaders we need to teach our teams to build cairns together. As we progress together we will have natural junction points where something significant occurs. It could be the arrival at a predetermined milestone, or the completion of a development goal. Maybe it is successful completion of a first event, or the expansion of the team as a whole caused by growth in territory. Whatever the cause, these are moment where we need to bring our team together to pause and acknowledge the significance of where we find ourselves.
The ways to build a cairn can vary from leader to leader and team to team. However, there are THREE fundamental reasons why building them will increase the health of the teams who do verses those who don’t.
Cairns Mark Movement
At the very least, taking the time to mark significant moments helps your team understand that progress is being made. During the doldrums of difficulty on a project, when it seems they are not getting any closer to the over all goal, building cairns provide a way of showing movement. It will allow you as a leader to demonstrate to the team that, while the overall goal hasn’t been reached, movement in that direction is still happening. Marking the incremental steps of the journey encourages them that progress is being made.
Cairns Remind of Previous Successes
It is impossible to keep a team’s moral up all the time. Stuff happens. Things slow down. Set backs occur. And, left unaddressed, these facts can start to erode the passion and confidence of a previously driven team. From time to time as a leader, you will need to remind your teams of the successes they have experienced, of the up hill battles they have won. Waiting until a season of low moral is the wrong time to start thinking of how to mark these times. But being disciplined to build the cairn as those momentous occasions happen will give you a strong collection of reminders to use as re-inspiration for your team.
It was like that for us on Long’s Peak. During a time of uncertainty and fearing possible failure, every previous cairn we encountered reminded us that we had been there before and that we were on the right path. It encouraged us to push forward. It will do the same for your teams.
Cairns Make Teams Fun
Everyone likes fun. People want to work along side people who are not only getting things accomplished, but also enjoying the accomplishment along the way. What is more, people are motivated to continue working hard when they know their efforts will be recognized. So when you can build a cairn and emphasize that it is happening because of the investment of the team’s effort—the celebration itself is motivation to keep moving forward. The desire to build another cairn together later, becomes part of the team’s drive now.
A final note about building...
Building a cairn doesn’t have to be a complicated thing, requiring a major event complete with party favors and door prizes. It can be as simple as showing up with a box of donuts or ice cream bars for the team. It can even be done by acknowledging the cairn verbally and having the team celebrate with applause and cheering. The point is saying to the team, “We know that this moment and place we have achieved as a team is important and worth celebrating. And we are going to remember that we did this!”
Look ahead. Identify the next up coming point where you can stop and build a cairn with your team… and start planning to do so now!
Check out www.redchairleader.com for more information on becoming a better leader and elevating more leadership from within your team.