What Rock Climbing at AML is Really About

I have been rock climbing for 15 years, and I can confidently say that climbing is exciting. Sometimes climbing excites an individual in a way that encourages more climbing- towards enjoyment. And sometimes climbing excites an individual in a way that deters them from future climbing experiences- towards fear. Most of the time it’s a little of both.

Of course, the nature of how a rock climbing experience is facilitated will have some influence on the type of excitement felt. At AML, we work with a lot of first time rock climbers, and we take great care to craft positive climbing experiences that result in an increased desire to participate in climbing.

Either way you slice it though, rock climbing is a powerful experience; you may even say sensational. Which brings me to the title of this blog post. When we utilize rock climbing in our programs, we do so not (primarily) for it’s sensational value but for its transformational value.

Rock climbing, as we facilitate it, is an experience which generates a level of challenge that peels layers back. The challenge inherent in the physical act of climbing, the necessary cooperative participation in a team, and the interaction with new technical systems provides an ideal environment to edge out of the veneer that we unknowingly, or even prefer to, keep up.   

To paraphrase MLK, the true measure of a person will be found not in moments of comfort but in moments of challenge. Sometimes we never know what strength, longing, conviction, searching, compassion, or desire is truly in our core until we peel back the doubt and insecurity that we’ve spent years piling on. We spend hours, days, and years addressing symptoms without ever digging down to discover the underlying cause.

In a relatively short amount of time, we can fully utilize rock climbing as an instrument for encouraging participants to search themselves in a profound and transformational way. The sensational value of climbing is merely icing on the cake of self discovery and community awareness.

I’ll wrap it up here with this quote from an accompanying adult following one of our recent climbing programs that I think illustrates what I mean when I say, “it’s not really about the climbing.” These students were from Eckerd Connects residential program, which is part of their juvenile justice services:

“...these boys did nothing but encourage each other today and [they] really got to experience something new. At the end of the day, they were gently encouraged to “be the men we need” in the world, which is highly important and seriously beautiful that our [Instructors] recognized the ability of these guys to be amazing human beings, despite the challenges they’ve faced. I’m thankful for other adults who can see the bright futures these boys have and not just their criminal behaviors.”

What Is At The Core?

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"Leadership starts on the inside," is one of the most foundational truths for anyone aspiring to lead others. The best leadership tools and strategies in the hands of a leader who hasn't examined herself or himself will always produce a mere shadow of the leadership potential that she or he truly has. 

AML has three foundational and specific outcomes for any of our programs:

  1. Increased Self-Awareness
  2. Heightened Community Awareness
  3. Practical Leadership Skills

It is not an accident that "Increased Self-Awareness" is the first of our program outcomes. Asking individuals to exercise their influence on others (and even equipping them to do so) without having first given them the chance to articulate their personal sense of purpose, vision, and direction would be trending towards recklessness. 

Only out of an understanding of our personal sense of purpose can we then have the proper footing from which to be of service to others. Without taking the time to do this, we will be adrift in our attempt to become effective leaders.

Another way to look at this is that self awareness serves as a filter through which we make our directional decisions in life and leadership. And we need a filter. Surely, there are so many things- good things and bad things- that we can choose to serve as leaders. So how do we choose what exactly to say yes to? I suggest saying yes to those good things which are also in line with your personal sense of purpose and vision. 

Can you articulate what that is for you? What is your personal sense of purpose and vision? 

True Leadership

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AML Instructors do wear an official and designated leadership role... "Instructor." But we all know that there is nothing in the title that grants special power. Granted, there is often a very narrow window of time when a group first arrives where the title "Instructor" will bear a bit more weight. But we know that the youth and adults we serve are formulating an impression of our Instructors from the moment they get off the bus or step out of the car. Our participants are discerning whether or not this person is knowledgeable, trustworthy, caring, up to the task, and worth following. If we sent an Instructor into the field who wore the title, "AML Instructor" but lacked knowledge, integrity, love, and proficiency, he/she would not be an effective leader.

We know that the title "Instructor" isn't the sufficient credential to be able to provide leadership throughout a one, three, or fourteen day program. Because the truth is that anyone could be assigned the title "Instructor." At AML, we identify our "Instructors" when we see the true credentials manifested in their work and life.  Our Instructors are leaders before wearing the title of "AML Instructor." Identifying them as such is simply a sign of confirmation of their effectiveness as influencers and educators as well as our commitment, as an organization, to continue investing in and building them up. 

So look around you, at the designated and appointed leaders you are following. Examine yourself in your own designated and appointed leadership roles. I encourage you to spend some time identifying the true credentials that make them/ you a leader in these roles. How much do they/ you rely on the title? How much is the title a confirmation of their/ your underlying abilities and intention?   

Foul Weather Leadership

A chilly rain was falling on our Instructing Team as they loaded the vehicle early this morning. As I watched them ferrying food and gear, I thought about what an amazing thing it was that in spite of the absolutely dreary tone set by the conditions outside, Jon and Jesse were there to serve, there to shepherd a group of students towards growth as leaders, and there to put hands and feet to AML's mission of fostering and inspiring servant leadership.  

Perhaps it struck me in such a way because as they departed in the wind and rain I was about to return to the lamplight of my desk and prepare to send out our monthly newsletter, answer emails, and work on curriculum for upcoming courses- all in a climate controlled office.

I can't help but think about the way our instructors in this moment exemplify an important principal of servant leadership... the ability to lead in foul weather. In this specific instance, I am referring to actual foul weather- wind, rain, chill.  But beyond this instance, in the metaphorical sense, I am referring to leadership circumstances that are less than ideal... which covers such a wide range of circumstances. Foul weather circumstances can be found where social dynamics have deteriorated, where resources have become scarce, where unforeseen challenges surface quickly, where forces outside of your group collide with your group's process, and any number of the ways group dynamics can bend and twist into uncomfortable circumstances. 

A servant leader is particularly shaped to be effective in these foul weather circumstances. Servant leaders view these situations as opportunities. Some leaders may find themselves being self conscious about the group's image and performance, fixated on controlling in times of foul weather. A servant leader, however, isn't there for their own sake. They are free to stand back and strategize about how best to utilize the circumstances for the benefit of the group's growth and maturity.

It is inevitable that in the life span of any group, foul weather seasons will occur. And it is important that the group's leadership, particularly in those times, has the genuine interest of others in their sights.

Oh, would you look at that! The sun has come out...

Leading Through the Unplanned



One of the key tenets of putting together an expedition or outdoor adventure of any sort is the anticipation (within a reasonable range) of the unexpected. Planning for the unplanned is a skill heavily leaned upon by those who lead in the outdoors.   

Let's break this down a bit...  at AML, we identify three primary learning environments that participants experience during their custom crafted adventure with us- Wilderness, Adventure, and Community. Each of these environments, or contexts, is chock-full of variables. In the Wilderness we have the variables of terrain conditions, weather, flora, and fauna just to name a few. Adventure provides a spectrum of "stress" ranging from non-existent to appropriately challenging to beyond beneficial for personal growth. And in the learning environment of Community, a group's dynamic is nearly always in flux. It is easy to understand why no two of our programs are identical when you consider the endless combination of variables that come together in just these three learning environments.

So how do we face the challenge of planning for such a dynamic process? For the scope of this post, and at the risk of oversimplifying it, we expect for the details of our plans to change. Short of our values, mission, and program framework, we willingly accept that the details of each group's experience are subject to alteration depending upon real life conditions. In fact, preserving larger group goals and organizational values and mission is often dependent on moment by moment flexibility.

Our instructors practice this balance with each group we serve- with the ultimate aim of coaching participants in exactly the same orientation towards uncertainty. It is a learning process whereby uncertainty looses its menacing and anxiety inducing qualities because it becomes regular... commonplace. Because in reality (even outside of the context of an expedition), that is how it is.

Sure, we like to think that life's details are orderly and predictable, and to varying degrees it actually is for some of us. But the truth is that in order to be effective leaders in our communities, schools, churches, and workplaces we need to have a tolerance for uncertainty. The combinations of variables in any real world community necessitate that we be prepared for the unplanned... that we not seize up when the order of our specific plans becomes compromised. 

Effective leaders (leaders intent on serving their communities well) are willing to lean in to the unexpected, anticipate scenarios outside of the main plan, and reroute the path to success. Short of compromising their core values and ultimate objectives, the servant leader is willing to sacrifice a generous range of details- because faithfulness to core values and ultimate objectives/mission is ultimately what defines success for a group.

So... can you think of details in your plans have you been stubborn to give up on for the sake of core values or greater mission? How might a greater tolerance for uncertainty change the way in you serve others through your leadership?



Twenty Thousand One Hundred Sixty



...why is this number significant? This is the number of minutes that pass during 14 days. 20,160 one minute moments pass in two weeks time.

On July 22nd, AML wrapped up our 14 day, Created for Purpose, expedition. And each moment of the expedition was marked with significance. Whether it was a moment spent stepping into the role of navigating, food preparation, camp set-up, establishing a bear hang, serving a local non-profit, praying for the group, taking-in a mountainous vista, tending to a blister, admiring a cool clear creek, belaying a peer, scaling vertical rock, enjoying the colors of the sky as the sun set in the west, or simply recovering from a long day in the comfort of a sleeping bag each moment mattered- all 20,160 of them. 

Some of them bear significance in their beauty, serving as standards for the kind of beauty wilderness and creation have to offer. Other moments bear significance in their ability to peel back the layers of preconceptions that students may have developed and maintained leading up to that moment- revealing that they have skills and abilities that are of tremendous value, not only to them but, to their peers and their communities. Yet other moments bear significance in their ability to restore- physical, emotional, and spiritual rest as a preparation for moments to come.

Of all the value in these moments, the true value in the Created for Purpose expedition is how these 20,160 moments consolidate to form a collective impact that enriches every future moment. CFP is't an isolated experience. It ties into life at home at every turn.  To encourage that process, each student who participated in this year's CFP expedition will have 11 months of follow-up mentoring once they arrive at home.

Many of you have kept CFP 2016 in prayer from day one, and before. Thank you. Please keep that momentum in prayer, that these students would be propelled into their mentoring relationships with great excitement. Empowered individuals, empowered communities. 



A Leader's Heart and A Sense of Wonder

Call it what you will... wonder, awe, admiration, fascination, amazement, or stupefaction (a personal favorite). We all know the feeling of being so enamored by a thing that we can't stop staring at it. I've experienced it in a campfire, the landscape of southern Utah's canyons , a newborn's facial expressions, a captivating photograph or painting, the ocean's movement at the shore, and a bird gliding upward on a rush of warming air. These are just to name a handful. When setting out to define "wonder" it seems that you really have to mingle together a collection of feelings to hit the mark. It is part surprise, part astonishment; it is part curiosity and part excitement. Wonder has a graceful, yet unapologetically forceful, way of holding both your attentions and your affections.

For as difficult as it is to describe wonder, there is at least one facet to wonder that is concrete. In the work that we do at AML it is clear that wonder is essential to the formation and sustaining of a leader's heart- particularly when it comes to vision (casting, carrying, pursuing, and instilling) A leader must be able to stand in awe of the future, seeing its potential and being astonished and excited for all that it holds. A leader who is not able to stand in awe and wonder of the future impact of the vision that they are currently carrying will simply trudge- gradually slowing to a tragic halt. Conversely, a leader who looks towards the future with awe and wonder will step forward in vision, shedding discouragement and pressing into the future hope that is set before them. 

How do you nurture your sense of wonder? How will you nurture your sense of wonder?

A Little Soggy and a Lot Triumphant

We parked above the lowest cloud layer in the Black Rock parking lot, near the summit of Linville Peak on Grandfather Mountain. And even though we could look out to a soft sea of cloud layer below us, there were still grey clouds moving fast and threatening from overhead. With the threat of rain but no electricity (lightning bolts), we prepare for the day like any other. Well, not like any other exactly. This is the fourth day of the Grandfather Challenge, so in addition to the itinerary being a step up in difficulty we are also transferring greater responsibility to the group- their navigation, time management, hydration, and communication are all elements that we have been preparing them to take-over. 

We move over the terrain really efficiently, even the more technical hand-line and ladder sections leading up to McCrae Peak. But just as we top-out on the ladders, the drizzle comes. Drizzle becoming ever more steady turns to rain, and before you know it saturation sets it. Down some hand lines, up "The Chute" and still raining. Over Attic Window Peak, into Calloway Gap and still raining. Eat lunch, ascend Calloway Peak and, you guessed it, still raining. If you've never seen it, its difficult to describe the experience of seeing a group of students take on adversity from all angles and maintain their resilient spirit. Sure there were moments of silence and low moral, but never did I see negativity deeply set-in. It's humbling... to see a group rise above it's circumstances with such poise, even when there is true reasonable cause for negativity. 

It is fitting that despite the sogginess, the lasting sentiment to this group's Grandfather Challenge is triumph. This is what AML serving the Jason Project is all about- facilitating an experience that allows students to rise above their circumstances. We're privileged and proud to serve these students.

 The group approaches a cloud-cloaked McCrae Peak.

The group approaches a cloud-cloaked McCrae Peak.

 Two students peer out into the fog atop Calloway Peak. 

Two students peer out into the fog atop Calloway Peak. 

Our Team is Growing, and We Love It!

AML is beyond privileged to have a whole team of individuals working in concert to strive towards our mission. As our opportunities to serve expand, we have been continually humbled to see new Team Members invest in the work we are doing. It is an absolute pleasure to announce the recent addition to our Board, Dr. Lionel van der Westhuizen!

What's that? You'd like to get to know Lionel a bit more? Sure thing:

Dr. Lionel van der Westhuizen is a board certified general surgeon living in Boone, NC. He graduated from Covenant College and studied at the Medical College of Georgia, obtaining his medical degree in 2007.  He then completed his General Surgery residency and Minimally Invasive Fellowship at Greenville Health System in Greenville, SC.

Lionel was born in South Africa, and grew up as a missionary kid in Chile, South America. During his time in Chile he developed a love for the outdoors, including skiing, hiking, backpacking and climbing. These interests and skills were honed as he obtained his Eagle Scout rank. His (and his wife’s) love for the outdoors played a big role in their decision to move to Boone after he completed his training.

Lionel is active in his church as well, where he serves as an Elder and regularly helps lead worship. His goal is to be used by Christ both in his professional career and his personal life.  He served in medical missions in Honduras during his surgical residency, and he has a continuing interest in medical missions in the future. Lionel is married to his wife Stephanie, and they have three children: Elie, John, and Caleb.

Lionel brings with him a passion and measure of wisdom that is certain to increase our effectiveness in fostering and inspiring servant leadership, and we are excited to have him.