Sunday, April 21, 2024

What makes a great leader?

By Jason Billard

Currents Guest Columnist

Chime went the early morning alarm on my iPhone. It was time to drag myself from my comfortable bed and prepare for a once-in-a-life-time-experience. This was the day I would be heading on a three-day hike with a group of my peers to one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most beautiful national parks. 

Was I ready? I thought I was.

The previous day was spent throwing everything together in a pile on the sofa, and from the sofa into a huge backpack. Well, the list said to bring one that could hold everything but the kitchen sink. Okay, it was not quite that big, but the list did say 64 litres. It didn’t matter to me that I had one that was twice that size; it only meant I would be able to carry much more gear, and that probably meant group gear as well.

One by one, each article of clothing went into the pack to be checked off the list: socks, sweater, under clothing, boots, jacket, and rain gear. Yes, I had it all including the sleeping bag, and any personal items I thought I would need.

After a quick breakfast, it was off to meet the rest of the gang at the college campus. Most of them had arrived the day before and had spent the night at a local hotel. Once everyone was on site, lunches were prepared and packed, gear was distributed, and more items were packed. Then we were all off to spend the next three days among the birds, bears, and trees.

The drive to the site was uneventful – taking just over an hour, with one brief stop at good old Tim Horton’s. It’s funny how one cannot live in Canada and pass by a Tim’s location without stopping in for that ever-present cup of java. Soon we were back on the road heading north on the Viking Trail. It seemed to be only a few short minutes before the bus was swinging left onto route 431, and then turning right onto a dirt road that dead-ended at our campground.


Let the fun begin

The first night we engaged in a number of icebreaker activities that taught us more about our leadership wilderness training. I stood back and watched our leader drop postcards all over the grass. Each postcard had a photo, and the object was to use a metaphor to describe the photo as it related to a leadership quality. My postcard was of the carvings of the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore. Of course, that immediately caused me to think about those individuals as great people since they were able to lead the mighty U.S. back in its early days as a nation.

The second activity was similar in nature; however, the photos on the cards were replaced by questions. The objective was to talk to each member of the group, pose the question you picked, and then answer the one they had selected. This brought forward a variety of answers and thoughts.

Even dinner on the first night was a collaborative team effort. We produced gourmet pizzas that were judged by our peers, and let’s just say the results were interesting. We didn’t win – maybe because it was really spicy – but we didn’t lose either. 

I don’t remember if it was the first night, or maybe it was the second, but a bear strolled through camp and sniffed around the tents that were situated just down from our group. In any event, I never slept well after that night.

The next day we went on a small hike out to the former community of Stanleyville – a community that was resettled years ago, and no-one lives there any longer. While there, we gathered in groups of three and brained-stormed on what qualities a leader should possess. I only remember our group coming up with two that were actually on the top 10 list: visionaries and motivators. In total, everyone thought of 27 characteristics, which I thought was an impressive number.

Throughout the day we participated in a couple of other group activities that required a lot of communication, close contact, and co-ordination. One of these was called Helium Stick. The object was to balance a long stick across the fingertips, and slowly lower it to the ground, making sure both ends made it to the ground at the same time. It took our group three tries to figure this out, but we did it!

Then our leader introduced us to the Magic Carpet Ride. In this scenario, we were all flying along on a magic carpet, when suddenly, the magic carpet flips, and we are all falling out of the sky. We had to figure out a way of turning the magic carpet over without stepping off it. This was one activity where I learned that communication is extremely important in groups. It was pretty incredible that we got the solution very early, but tossed it aside and discussed other ideas without even trying it. It took us almost an hour to finally circle back to one of the first ideas that was proposed. To get the magic carpet upright again, there was a lot of twisting and contact. This pushed some people way outside their comfort zone, including me, but I was surprised that I wasn’t overly bothered by it, and we completed the task.

On the third day, the prospects of inclement weather changed the scheduled hike to a bus tour about the area. We stopped at a gift shop and a fossil site along the Viking Trail highway, where we saw a Trilobite preserved into the face of the limestone. We also got to participate in more group activities. The first was called the Mine Field, and was designed around trusting your team members. A grassy area was roped off and filled with detritus from all over the camp – dishes, fuel bottles, coolers, ropes, garbage cans, and just about anything else was fair game. At first we worked in teams of two with the second person in the team wearing a blindfold. The blindfolded person had to have complete trust in their teammate’s directions through the minefield. 

“Okay, a little to the left, and then take a few steps ahead,” was heard all across the field. When I think back on this activity, for me this was not difficult. Being a legally blind person, I trust people to direct me every day. It does not always work out, but that’s a story for another time.

Our leader then made the activity much more difficult by having one person direct two blindfolded people across the minefield. I was actually surprised that everyone made it without too much difficulty. Again our leader stepped it up a notch. At this point it became a competition with one sighted person directing three blindfolded people, not only down the length of the minefield, but back to the starting line as well. If you struck a mine either on the way down or the way back, one had to start over at the beginning. Our team won this round. Then it became extreme. We all formed a human centipede and attempted to navigate the minefield. Anyone who struck an object was sent to the back of the line, and the person at the beginning of the line had to give directions.

We did one more activity that day – the Traffic Jam. I’ll be honest, we didn’t solve this riddle, although we were close. By this time our group communication and actions were much more fluid, with ideas suggested and tried before moving onto another idea.

On the ground were nine foil-covered squares. Each square had a person standing on it, four facing left, and four facing right, each group on opposite ends. The object was to shift all the people across the squares, with conditions. One person could not pass two people at the same time, and any given person could not move backwards. If I learned anything from this one, it is sometimes one needs to step back from the group and look at the situation from an outside perspective. When I got back home, I reacted the puzzle and solved it after a few tries; something that I was unable to do while in the middle of the puzzle. 

Upon reflection, this trip was a great lesson in self-awareness. I learned that I do have leadership qualities, which in some situations can shine strong, but there are other times I tend to stay in the background.

Jason Billard is a first-year Business Administration student who lives in Corner Brook and attends College of the North Atlantic’s campus there.

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Glenda Tompkins
Glenda Tompkins
Glenda is a 20-year marketing and communications veteran currently specializing in photography/videography and social media management. She has garnered multiple awards for her innovative, strategic campaigns at CNA. Her experience includes writing, editing, graphic design, event planning, and more. When she’s not reviewing social media engagement analytics, she enjoys spending quality time with her young family.


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