12 Most Important Leadership Lessons I Learned By Hiking 12 Miles

12 Most Important Leadership Lessons I Learned By Hiking 12 Miles

I love hiking and mountains, and fortunately, Oregon is one of the best places to experience both!

But sometimes, I truly wish I lived in Kansas. This sentiment was especially strong last weekend when my husband suggested we hike up Salmon Butte, which involved a 12-mile, 3,000-foot trek near Mt. Hood Oregon. I’m slow and steady on the trail, with 7-8 mile jaunts comfortably within my “do-able” zone, but this trip posed a new challenge – it was the longest and most elevation gain hike I’ve ever attempted.

Add on the fact that there was going to be snow involved at some point at the higher elevations, and I knew this was going to be one of those experiences that really tested who I am as a person.

We set out on a cold and frosty morning, spurred on by weather reports that at higher altitudes, the weather was clear and we would be guaranteed great views–provided that we made it to the top of Salmon Butte.

As we were hiking, certain lessons became crystal-clear to me as the day wore on, and I experienced learning moments that eerily aligned with leadership development.

Here’s what I learned on this trip:


1. Have a sense of purpose and know where you are going.

All leaders need to have a sense of purpose – if you don’t know where you are going, no one will follow you. It’s important to have a clear idea of how to guide the company or venture so you can have the complete buy-in of others to make it happen. Leaders take the time to get the maps and compasses out to get the ship pointed in the right direction. On the hike, we thoroughly researched the trip and had a specific purpose of what the day’s trip was going to entail, so we had a sense of purpose and I could follow my husband’s lead.

2. Be prepared and have the right tools.

Part of being a leader is also knowing what the risks are and taking steps to protect the organization from potential liabilities posed by those risks. Too many times, organizations fail because the leaders either take too many risks or leave the company open to disaster by not preparing adequately. I see this a lot with hikers – people who set out with no emergency supplies or even water, let alone appropriate gear are often just setting out by the time we are on the return trip. It isn’t surprising to hear of rescue attempts being made for lost hikers who ventured out without any kind of preparation.

3. Sometimes the easiest, most direct things are the wrong things to do.

The trail to Salmon Butte used to be partly on a road (which is now decommissioned), and along the way, many areas were being re-vegetated with native plants. As we were hiking along, sometimes it seemed like a more direct route to cut through the plants versus staying with the actual path. I thought briefly that it might be just easier to take the direct route and avoid extra steps, but then I realized, that would not have been the right thing to do by destroying new vegetation. Too many times, leaders try to cut corners for quick profits or benefits, and pay the price morally. Short term gains can mean long-term damage.

4. When the going gets tough, take it one step at a time.

Some sections were steeper than others, and at some point, I felt like I was facing an uphill battle. Was I really going to make it to the top of this behemoth mountain? Instead of thinking far ahead and realizing how much time and effort it was going to take to get to the summit, I started concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Slowly, as the hours wore on, each step put me closer to the goal. I didn’t let agonizing about whether or not I would make it to the top interfere with the “in the moment” progress of how much distance I was putting behind me with each stride I took.

5. If it’s the right decision, it’s okay to abandon plans.

Sometimes, adversity faces us down, and the tough choices have to follow. Should I continue? Should I turn around? I had one of those moments near the summit- we finally reached the snow zone and had been tramping around in icy drifts that were sometimes yielding under my weight. That meant post-holing and sinking in up to my knee. The knee that had a partial ACL tear from 10 years ago. I was getting scared that to continue in such unstable conditions was going to risk further injury to myself. Somewhere near the summit, I asked my husband how much further he thought we were from the top. He said that it was just around the corner. I decided to push on, but if it had been much further, turning around would have been the right option – even if it meant abandoning the plans we had to summit.

6. If you stumble and fall, pick yourself up again.

On our descent, we were working up against the clock- sunset was just around the corner and while we had headlamps with us, I didn’t really want to hike in the dark. It was just starting to get dim when my foot caught a root and I got thrown forward, off-balance. Before I could get my hands out, I fell, slamming my chest into a downed log. Fortunately, no injuries (just the wind knocked out of me), but I shook it off and got up and started hiking again. Why? Because I had to. There was no other way to get back home, and the same happens in business.

7. Take a breather once in awhile.

No one is telling you that this has to be an all-out sprint. You need to see your leadership as something that gradually happens over time, and sometimes, being a leader can wear you out, so you need to take a breather and recharge your own batteries. As the person at the helm of an organization, a lot of weight rests on your shoulders, so it is especially important that you take a breather so you have more to give later.

8. Stop and enjoy the view.

It’s not so much about the ego boost you get for making it to the top, but just being in the moment and having gratitude for being able to achieve the goals you set for yourself.

9. Don’t be afraid to rely on others for support.

Part of being on a team is to support each other, and sometimes, leaders need to turn to their team members to give them what they need to help accomplish the lofty goals. I relied on my husband’s prior knowledge of the hike as well as moral support that reinforced my belief that I could accomplish this goal.

10. Self-doubt will always interfere with your goals.

I will admit it – a few times, I didn’t know if I could actually make it to the top. I could have easily talked myself out of doing this hike even before we left the house, but I realized that I had a goal and wasn’t going to talk myself out of something I wanted to do.

11. Be patient and you will be rewarded.

If someone had told me this: “You will spend 7 straight hours walking over difficult terrain” – I might have asked where the elevator was so I could skip that step. But by being patient, I learned that the reward itself is in what it took to get up there instead.

12. By pushing yourself, you find out what your real potential is.

Sure I was sore and feeling pretty beat up by the time we got back to the car, but now I am already thinking about going on longer hikes… I realized that I have the potential to go farther than I ever thought and achieve peaks that I had previously thought were out of my reach. Knowing what this possibility is now reshaping what paths I will take in the future!

The next time you tackle something that pushes your envelope, watch carefully for the lessons you can learn from the experience as well as the new personal knowledge of what you can achieve when you set your mind to it!

Feature image courtesy of Megan Pru via Creative Commons.


Dawn Rasmussen


Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, is the president of Portland, Ore.-based Pathfinder Writing and Career Services. Clients from across the United States and Canada and from all career levels have benefited from Dawn’s highly-focused and results-oriented résumé, cover letter, and job search coaching services. Many professional groups as well as colleges and universities have appreciated the insights and expertise she shares during presentations on career management topics, and she is a frequently requested national speaker as a result. Dawn also shares her knowledge as the official “Get the Job” columnist for One+ Magazine distributed to over 26,000 people worldwide, and writes as a jobs expert for the “Career Oxygen” feature on Talentzoo.com, a job resource site for creative and marketing professionals

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the west highland way
the west highland way

Water is very important for our body. Always make sure to bring plenty of water before starting the hill walk. During the warmer months, you generally go through 2 liters of water per person on 8-15 mile day hike.


Wonderful lessons to embrace, Dawn! Each of your points are so essential to grab on to as leaders and as individuals who just want to be better and do more in this world. One thought that went through my mind as I was reading this is the importance of pushing on at times. We get tired yet, if the mission is vital, then we need to continue forward. Thanks for your insights! Jon