Harness the Current

Access Continuum’s Leadership Model for leading through novel unknowns

Continuum Consulting Services LLC

As COVID continues to create novel unknowns, it is getting more and more difficult to envision and strategize for the future with any certainty. Uncertainty has become the new normal, and leaders must adapt how they plan and make decisions. Wilderness adventures can offer valuable insights for leaders as they adapt to and navigate situations they’ve never faced before.

A case in point: It was day five of our annual backpacking trip on the Colorado Trail in the Rocky Mountains. Each carrying a 35-lb. backpack, a few friends and I had just hiked a 70-mile trail section, which included summiting four peaks for a total of 16,000 feet in elevation gain. A combination of blistering heat, rain, sleet and occasional snow along the way left us tired and hungry but feeling accomplished. The only thing keeping us from physical collapse at this point was our vision of meeting my husband and his friend at the trailhead to drive us down the mountain to the camp they set up for us. There we would enjoy a cold beer, some nice wine, and homemade spaghetti, followed by a trip to the local hot springs for a warm soak. We were so confident in our vision and eager to get to the hot springs that we had gone all-out for the last five miles, consuming remaining snacks and exhausting our energy reserves.

We reached the designated meeting spot, but the guys were nowhere to be found. We eagerly searched for a note, to no avail, which was “Plan B” should they be unable to meet us at the agreed upon time. As cold rain began falling and thunderclouds boomed overhead, we instinctively pulled out our phones, but of course, there was no connection.

“How can this be?” I sighed and then grumbled, “This plan has always worked in the past, and we all looked at the map together the night before we started. Where the #@*% are they?” Upon further inspection of our surroundings, it was evident that the steep six-mile road from town had been washed out. It was impassable, preventing the guys from driving to the trailhead to pick us up as planned. Our only options were to hike down then or spend another night on the mountain and face hiking out the next day. We were furious our well-made plan was not going to be a reality.

Leadership Lessons Learned

More than three decades of backpacking in the wilderness have taught me lessons that are coming in handy today: 

Lesson #1:  The only thing I can know with certainty is that I don’t know what lies ahead.

Nothing is certain during the pandemic, and we must hold our expected outcomes very lightly because the “new normal”, post-COVID, remains elusive. 

Lesson #2:  Beware of false summits. I may have to muster the energy and scrape up resources to forge onward because there will be unexpected hills to climb while reaching my destination. It’s not just the COVID mountain we are climbing right now; it’s also systemic racism, an uncertain economy, homeschooling, and virtual work teams, to name just a few. 

Lesson #3:  Be cognizant of your mindset as it influences everything you say and do.

During this COVID era, we must inhabit the mindset of someone leading a team of explorers about to step into the great unknown and be willing to accept that anything can happen.

Tendayi Viki, innovation consultant and research fellow at Stanford University, promotes having an “explorer’s mindset” in his article “How Adopting An Explorer’s Mindset Can Help You To Lead Innovation.”

Lesson #4:  Urban life has accustomed us to rely on familiar systems designed to guide and protect us. We put ourselves at risk when we take those systems for granted and don’t fully prepare for times when we have limited or no access.

We cannot confidently depend on the structures and processes we used pre-COVID. We have to think for ourselves and prepare to pivot and innovate to get work done.

Lesson #5:  When traveling to a place we’ve never been before, it’s dangerous to make predictions based on existing knowledge and past experience.  

It’s easy to get complacent with what has worked for so long, but what got us to here won’t necessarily get us where we’re headed during COVID and beyond.

Lesson #6The lack of scenario planning can result in repetitive mistakes, unnecessary fatigue and insufficient resources.

Scenario planning gives us more options to choose from so that we can be less reactive in the moment. For example, when COVID began, most businesses immediately moved their meetings and transactions to video conferencing, usually via Zoom. There was no Plan B nor sufficient prior study about the potential impact of constant screen-to-screen communications. “Zoom Fatigue” is a term birthed during this COVID era. Read here to discover why video chat is exhausting you right now and what to do about it.  More scenario ‘what if’ planning might have made businesses more prepared.

Lesson #7:  Be resilient. Never underestimate what you are capable of doing when your life depends on it.

The COVID era requires us to be resilient and to innovate ways to survive, and even thrive, during and post-COVID. The best-known testament to this lesson is the legendary survival story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. It offers endless leadership lessons drawn from wilderness survival.

As for me and my hiking buddies, after withstanding the rain long enough to motivate us to keep moving, we pulled out the map and found another 4×4 road nearby. We hiked another 1.5 miles and were delighted to befriend a few weekend warriors enjoying the great outdoors on their ATVs. They drove us down the mountain in style.

For additional resources to support you as you continue to navigate these novel unknowns, please visit 

Lisa Marie Main, co-founder and partner for Continuum Consulting Services, is an accomplished leader, trainer, consultant, executive coach and facilitator of interactions that lead to alignment and results-based action for business and organizational leaders around the world.