Don’t Descend a Mountain w/Someone who Doesn’t Know What They’re Doing

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Descend a Mountain

I hope you’re planning a good weekend…This past weekend, I went hiking twice. If you’ve never bested a mountain, you don’t know joy!



On Saturday, I took an older couple from church on a short hike. By older, I mean, they are 65 and 75. Get this: they asked me if I’d introduce them to hiking! They said they enjoyed hearing about my outdoor activities so much that they wanted to try it. This was a big friggin’ deal! These are two people who are not the outdoors type and who have NEVER gone hiking before. And maybe it was an even bigger deal because I assumed they wouldn’t be interested in hiking because of their age and race (This is why Outdoor Afro exists! There are not many Black people on the hiking trails. Also, part of the reason that I love REI is their commitment to diversity.)

Of course, I agreed to take them hiking; but they had to do something first. They had to get actual hiking boots. Well, not only did they get hiking boots, but the wife bought two pairs! Shortly after they got their boots, the husband called to tell me that he and his wife were not in the best physical shape and to “please don’t kill us”. Because he and I have a great relationship (I’ve dubbed him “Uncle”), it took me a minute realize that he was actually disclosing their fears despite his joking tone. At the same time, an additional alarm went off: based on this conversation and what I knew about his wife, she was probably being dragged into this!

A couple of weeks after they got their boots, I hadn’t heard anything from them: were their fears turning into quiet resistance and prayers that I’d forget about it? This possibility was unacceptable, so I called them, told them to begin breaking in their boots, and set a date for October 23rd at 10:30am. The irony of having to push them to do something they said they wanted to do…

In the days leading up to it, I gave them two more things to do to prepare (get bug spray and something to cover their hair (my paranoia is a scalp tick)). It was at this point that they surprised me. They knew that hikers had all sorts of gear, but I’d only told them to get boots and bug spray: what was up with that? I had to explain my plan for them in order to make them feel confident that they weren’t being set up for failure. Just because they knew I’m an experienced hiker, it didn’t mean that they completely trusted me to guide them. 

The big day came, and I pulled up in front of their home at 10:30am sharp, and off we went! When we parked, the wife got out of the car and remarked, “I can’t believe Mylena got us out here in the d**n woods!” I knew I was right: hiking was, indeed, Uncle’s idea!

When we approached the trail head, guess what we saw? A sign that said, “trail closed.” My ego kicked in, and I felt like I needed to appear unphased; thus, I immediately said, “Typically, when a trail is closed in this park, it’s because a tree has fallen and is blocking the path. Normally, they don’t remove the tree. Instead, they just cut part of the trunk blocking the path and let nature take care of the rest.” The wife said, “I understand that, but are you suggesting that we ignore the sign and go that way anyway?” Mind you, Uncle seemed to have gone on mute! He let me take all of her anguish alone! I assured her that there was another access point to the trail (You have no idea how glad I was that I’d studied that trail map). 

We finally made it to the alternate path, which was about two miles roundtrip. The first quarter mile was uphill and the last quarter mile was very rocky downhill decline. Other than that, it was very easy…to me! The people I was leading did not think so. Right away, I realized that my job was to help them believe that they were safe, that they wouldn’t fall down the side of the mountain, and that that they’d go home in one piece!  

Ironically, one of my clients is leading her team through some pretty significant changes and they are encountering rather rocky terrain. Her primary tasks are to make sure the team knows where the organization is headed, to show them that she had anticipated their needs and planned for the safety, and to encourage them. Frankly, they can do the work; but they are scared. They’re scared because they want to fully trust the path forward, but they don’t. Sometimes, their behavior, “Does she not see that sign?”, reflects that the changes are distressing to them. Meanwhile, the leader, my client, wants to move at a faster pace. She’s a little tired of repeating herself and is growing weary of what feels like never-ending cheerleading. Like me, she’s never spent so much time on just two miles, but she is also worried about the rocks on the last leg: will they fall or consider turning around if I don’t keep cheering or walk closely beside them to find the lose rocks first? Or worse, if they finish without my cheerleading, will they bring up, at every possible opportunity, how much leadership does not care about them?

When we finished our trail, they were exceedingly proud of themselves! How often do you celebrate the individual and collective successes of the people you work with? Apparently it’s true that success breeds success because they’ve already asked to go again, and one of the wife’s friends has asked for advice on hiking boots. It looks like we might have a monthly hiking club!

On the other hand, if I am honest, I was not satisfied. I was glad that things went well for them, but I didn’t get what I needed. By the same token, I couldn’t let on that I felt that way (and let’s hope they don’t see this!). While I believe in being transparent and vulnerable with those that I lead, you can’t share everything with people who are looking to you for guidance. Yes, you are in the thing together, but lamenting downline undermines the team’s confidence in you and kills their enthusiasm for the work that you do together. 

So, on Sunday, I went hiking again! I called a friend who makes for great company. We went to State Line Park in the Palisades. The hike was exhilarating and exhausting. I loved it! But, alas, I hiked alone. My Sunday hiking companion was not as adventurous as I thought. I also assumed that she was a more capable hiker because of her age (see what assumptions and biases get you?). While I hiked a little bit of the trail, she was gracious enough to wait at the cafe at the beginning of the trailhead. Frankly, she was a little afraid; thus, she was happy to wait rather than feel pressured to go.

This experience reiterated a lesson I’d already learned, but, apparently, had forgotten: leaders, like hikers, must build communities of people who have similar or slightly greater levels of experience. When you spend too much time with people you tower over, you spend too much time looking down rather than up. Nevertheless, it is important to include people who need to grow in your community, organization, or tribe. Their presence reveals your assumptions and makes you more compassionate. By the same token, when you spend too much time with people who are exceedingly above you, you may find yourself afraid to try because you worry that your deficiencies shine brighter than they do, which was how my Sunday companion felt. Evenso, you must enter into those spaces sometimes because they give you something to aspire to and help you manage your ego: you are not always the smartest person in the group. Finally, you learn to love your peers because you can have frank conversations, compare notes and hold one another accountable…and this will be my experience on Thanksgiving when I return to State Line Park with a fellow, tried and true, hiker.


  1. Revs Harry and Lynette on September 19, 2022 at 8:14 pm

    ll, Mylena. We did see it and was surprised and smiled….laughed. One thing you did not say was that you walked 20 miles (I’m sure of it). The rocks yes hurt my feet, yes it was Uncle’s idea, but I went willingly, especially after paying for two pairs of boots. It was good to go and we look forward to many more hikes on the trails, woods, and sky. What made the hiking successful was your authentic spirit with its genuine effort toward creating friendship in the process. Successful leaders who are creating authentic friendships are splendid in adventurous undertakings. Its that spirit of friendship that keeps us coming back to the trails in the deep forest with you! I really want to see little red….what’s her name with the afro curl (private joke) Indeed, you are something else.

    • M. Sutton on September 21, 2022 at 12:10 pm

      I am tickled that you actually saw this blog post. Never in a million years did I think you’d see it. I’m sure you see in your work, what I see in mind: leadership and team-building requires intention and that you genuinely care about the people you’re working with. In turn, you anticipate their needs because meaningful success really does have to be a collective victory. I’m looking forward to our next hiking date, and you know good and well little red will only get on the trails with us if we kidnap her!

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