A Lesson from Shackleton

 The Endurance trapped in the ice before reaching Antarctica. Photo from scienceonscreen.org

The Endurance trapped in the ice before reaching Antarctica. Photo from scienceonscreen.org

One of my favorite leadership stories ever to be documented is that of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition, which took place from 1914-1916; perhaps you are already familiar with it. It is a success story set inside a spectacular failure. The expedition never actually achieved what it set out to accomplish- to sail to and traverse the continent of Antarctica (2000 miles).

The Endurance and its crew never even reached the continent before it became surround and locked in by sea ice. Eventually, the ship was crushed by the ice and sank to the ocean floor. To condense the story, Shackleton (the expedition leader) and his crew of 27 men abandoned the ship and survived a harrowing 11 brutal months (5 months floating on the sea ice and over 6 months on a tiny barren island) before they were finally able to initiate their own rescue... which involved Shackleton and a portion of his crew navigating a 22 foot long lifeboat through some of the roughest seas in the world over the course of 15 days using only a sextant to find  an island 800 miles away that is only 100 miles wide at its widest point. After arriving on the island, the men had to traverse technical mountain terrain with no mountaineering equipment in order to reach a whaling station on the opposite side of the island. And all of transpired without loosing a single member of the crew.

 The crew makes camp on the ice, their home for 5 months. Photo from coolantarctica.com

The crew makes camp on the ice, their home for 5 months. Photo from coolantarctica.com

This story might, at first seem a little difficult to relate to for our leadership contexts. But when you consider the nature of all the variables, I think we can find an abundance of relevance. For example: the sheer volume of opposition that challenges posed, the complexity of environmental and interpersonal variables, the unfamiliar terrain, limited resources, and the real life stakes of charting a right or wrong course ... just to name a few.

Whether metaphorically or directly, these are all familiar dynamics in today’s leadership landscape- in our homes, our neighborhoods, our social communities, our churches, our local governments, our nation, and our global community.

While there are more specific lessons to be extracted from this remarkable display of leadership, I would like to highlight just one simple value we can mine from this story. And that is hope. The crew of the Endurance faced overwhelming odds- some of them outlined above. Yet, they persisted in the task of coming through it. It is difficult to imagine that level of persistence being possible without deep stores of hope.

We all face challenge and opposition in our leadership roles. At some point, if we are being honest, I think we could all think of a time we considered throwing in the towel when the going got truly difficult. But hope can pull us through. Hope can motivate and empower our faculties towards their fullest potential. Hope can be a defining asset in the midst of great difficulty.

So my parting offering is this: next time you find yourself up against the odds in a leadership role, look out beyond the odds. Seek perspective. Set your eyes on that greater thing towards which you are striving. Let it fill you with hope. Let it draw you forward.

Thanks so much for tuning in to AML’s blog. I hope it provides you wit encouragement and food for thought as you serve in your own leadership roles. Did you know that AML is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and that we rely on financial partnership from folks like you? If the content of our blogs resonate with you, we would love to invite you to consider partnering with us in the mission of “fostering and inspiring servant leadership.” Learn more about financial partnership by clicking on the button:

Family Adventures, Whatever the Weather


The plan was to get the kiddos out for a day of climbing. My two daughters (ages 5 and 7) were excited to share this experience with their cousins (ages 7 and 9) who were in town for a visit. We were to go out to the chimneys  Such outings require a good bit of preparation. As a parent, I am no longer responsible only for myself and my own comforts in the backcountry, but I am also responsible for my children (and in this case my niece and nephew as well). And this parental responsibility takes on many different and unique challenges with any outing, much less those taking place in the backcountry. 

The central dimension from which these varied challenges emerge is that of emotional regulation. The capacity for humans to tolerate discomfort and challenging circumstances is directly linked to our ability to regulate our emotions. This capacity for emotional regulation is developmentally grounded, meaning that infants are less capable of regulating their emotions (and more dependent upon external “parental” soothing actions to regulate their emotions) than 5 year olds, who in turn are less capable of regulating their emotions than teenagers, and so on.

What this means for me as a parent taking kiddos into the backcountry is a recognition of just how fast a backcountry outing can go south. By its nature, backcountry travel involves exposure to many different elements that are beyond one’s control. Vast fluctuations in temperature; the potential for rain, snow, ice, and/or electrical storms; insects and animal life; as well as the challenge and difficulty of terrain all reflect the dynamic and shifting nature of the backcountry environment that is beyond one’s control.

In fact the value and allure of a backcountry outing is precisely that it takes us out of controlled environments (like the climate controlled house) and places us in the environment which is beyond our control. This outing is itself an opportunity for these kiddos to push their limits, to develop the emotional girth to handle difficult circumstances beyond their control, to develop their capacity for emotional regulation. This critical skill of emotional regulation will serve them well in life as it is a transferable skill they will utilize in their future work, relationships, and engagements in the larger community and society. But the value of such an outing depends upon the balancing of these challenges with necessary structure and support.

The goal of such a backcountry outing is to take these kiddos just beyond their comfort zone, but not so far that it puts them in a panic zone. This is what Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development.” With so many uncontrolled variables at play, the parental role of keeping the challenges of backcountry travel within the kiddo’s zone of proximal development can be rather complex. Preparation is key. 

 In preparing for a backcountry outing, I as a parent have the task of ensuring that we have what is needed… not according to my own ability and comfort, but to that of the youngest child in the group. I not only dress myself for the outing, but make sure each kiddo has dressed and packed their clothing appropriately (including a rain jacket, warm hat, a change of clothes, and appropriate shoes for hiking/climbing). I also must pack food and water for all kiddos embarking on our adventure, recognizing the fact that children need food more regularly than adults, particularly in times of stress. Finally I must also prepare for those times when kiddos are on the edge of a meltdown, when they are heading into the panic zone. I need tools for being able to support and soothe these kiddos in such challenging or scary times. For these times I always bring a special treat, perhaps a bar of chocolate or other item of comfort for children. My ace in the hole here is a bullet thermos of hot chocolate, but I often will bring both hot chocolate and a bar of chocolate to share. This has worked miracles for me when adventuring in the backcountry with these kiddos… in snow, in rain, after 5 miles of hiking, and more.


 So we packed accordingly, prepared and ready for whatever weather may present itself. The morning of our outing was wet but with the possibility of clearing up. We packed everything, each kiddo with their own small pack of clothing and water, and me with all the climbing gear and food. My dad and sister were coming too, so it was a full on family outing. Upon our travels to town we realized that the rain would continue and there’d be no access to dry rock that day. We eventually changed plans, going for a 2 mile hike in the morning hours followed after lunch by climbing at Center 45. All in all a successful day, with adventure, fun, and time together as family. And plenty of opportunity for me to grow in my own emotional regulation as I engage in the adventurous and challenging, but always rewarding, role of parenting.

3 Hallmarks of Servant Leadership


I meet with leaders on a regular basis to discuss the potential of building a custom program for their group, team, or class. A question that I often get asked is “what is servant leadership?” After all, we make it a point right there in our mission statement that AML exists to “foster and inspire servant leadership.”

I love this question because it is an incredible opportunity to get right to the heart of our mission, and ultimately, the work for which we are purposed.

To take a small step back, I’ll first define how we at AML view leadership in general. We understand leadership as, fundamentally, a process of influence. And in that sense, leadership is neutral- having both the potential to be either positive or negative.

This is why we specify the type of leadership that we aim to foster and inspire. Servant leadership is a perspective of leadership in which the primary aim of an organization or person’s influence is to advance others. It is influence which specifically places the interests of others at its core.

So how do you know if you are exercising servant leadership? Here are 3 hallmarks to look for in your own leadership to help you assess whether or not you are exercising servant leadership. These are by now means exhaustive. It should be a great start though:

  1. You are looking through a “stewardship lens” when it comes to the management of resources such as money, time, and relationships. Leaders typically have access to a relative abundance of resources. Those resources can be physical in nature (such as an operating budget or a supply of equipment) or less tangible resources (like a rolodex of experts or years of personal experience). A stewardship lens helps you to perceive your wealth of resources as opportunities that exist for strategic dispersement to your team… not hoarding. The stewardship lens helps a leader see that their resources are simply entrusted to them for a time.

  2. You have a robust and sincere interest in the people you are leading. This doesn’t mean that you will be fast friends with everyone on your team… even if your team is of a size where it is theoretically possible. But having an interest in someone (wanting to know what they like, what they don’t like, and what really motivates them) is good evidence that you care about them. And it is very difficult to put someone’s interests at the core if you haven’t even been motivated to discover their interests.

  3. You appreciate receiving feedback from those whom you are leading, especially the constructive kind. Often times, we don’t receive feedback well, particularly when feedback is of a constructive nature. Why is this? Lot’s of reasons really, but I can say from personal experience that one significant reason stems from our desire to self protect- whether it is protecting a reputation, a title, a position, a set of actions, or (fill in the blank). While I’m not advocating a perpetual posture of being a doormat, it is important to recognize that it is very difficult to be proactively advocating for others while consumed by the task of advocating for, or defending, yourself.

Do any of these assessment areas resonate with you?

What else would you add to this list?

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?

What Is At The Core.png

"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

True Leadership.png

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?