Leadership Lessons in Canyon Country

Tucked away in the shade of a sandstone ledge above me, I looked up to see if Fred had made it over the tricky overhung section of the rappel. A few yards to my left, Christina diligently watched the rope while Lizzie and Jamie sipped water and excitedly talked about the obstacles that awaited us down canyon.

June 2, 2014

On May 16, 2014, ten Yale SOM students met in Salt Lake City, UT to embark on a 9-day National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) backpacking adventure in the Cedar Mesa Canyon region of Southeastern Utah. NOLS is a world class experiential education non-profit that prides itself on teaching leadership skills in some of the most awe inspiring wilderness classrooms. For the second year, Yale SOM Leadership Development Program partnered with NOLS to provide rising second years an opportunity to practice applied leadership skills.

Photo: Heather West

During the course we traveled approximately 27 miles in 7 full days and 8 nights, making a loop from Gravel Crossing Trailhead. For the first half of the course, we hiked on the mesa north of Gravel Canyon and dropped Cowboy Canyon for a day of adventuring. A few more miles up canyon, we rappelled into Gravel and descended down canyon to White, and back to our starting spot were our vans awaited to transport us back to Salt Lake City.

Photo: Fred Meira

The group walked away from the trail with new backcountry skills, and perhaps more importantly, an increased level of awareness of what NOLS calls expedition behavior and the 7-4-1 leadership model. Over the course of the trip, we had participated in a number of different modules that increased our understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader in many different leadership roles: designated, peer, active, and self. Each module became a theme for the day and built upon previous learnings so that by the end of the trip, the group had a common language to work with as we were making decisions and traveling through the canyons.

I saw many firsts for my classmates during our time in the canyons: rappels, sleeping under the stars, cooking on a backpacking stove, and finding water in the backcountry. I was inspired by the groups’ energy and openness to an experience that could only be deemed a success if everyone agreed on our goals and route for the day. Finally, I leave SE Utah with a renewed understanding for my own signature leadership style and an appetite to continue to hone both my technical backcountry skills and my capabilities as a leader.

Photo: Sarah Biggerstaff 

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About the author

Heather West

2014, MBA/FES