A Human at the Helm: Authentic Leadership for Full Engagement

6 Ways to Bring Expedition Leadership into the Everyday

A Human at the Helm: Authentic Leadership for Full Engagement

High-fives and congratulations all around as we stand in arctic temperatures and high winds on the summit of the highest point in North America, Denali, Mt. McKinley at 20,320 feet. Our team of eight didn’t get here independently – it took a fully engaged team and a collective effort over the course of twenty-one days.


As an expedition leader I’ve learned through trial and error how to support and co-create strong, engaged, and successful teams (my apologies and gratitude to those teams that had a bit more learning and challenge than others!).

How do you create an environment to cultivate success in sub-optimal conditions? My experience highlights the first twenty-four hours make or break an expedition. Why? Team members are acutely aware of your leadership style at this stage and tone is everything. You may still “succeed” at reaching your goal in a traditional sense without attention to tone, but your team may not follow you again.

Here are six leadership tips culled from the rigors of expeditioning that create team cohesion, honor the individual, and cultivate excellence:

As with any high endeavor, uncertainty is an essential component of the experience. Be humble, acknowledge that the team is comprised of strengths and skills to address the anticipated challenges, yet uncertainty exists. Your humility and ability to create an environment to address uncertainty will ease the collective anxiety. Create an avenue to safely address uncertainty at opportune moments.

During the kick-off and introductory phase, name the things that your team and individuals might be concerned about – hierarchy in the room, time demands and how that impacts their personal lives, workload challenges, etc. Later, when you have time for longer discussion and when the group have more information, discuss and problem-solve in more detail and with transparency. Acknowledge that you haven’t created solutions for all of their challenges but you are open to information and influence to support their needs.

People without information lack power and choices. The result: bitter, disengaged, and distrustful participants. Give your team information up front and if there are unknowns be specific about those and acknowledge them. Provide the team with a plan, map the entire experience in full. Explain all the players, timelines, and goals. You don’t need to provide excruciating detail, but provide them with information so that they can see the whole picture and be active participants and not solely cogs in the system.


Laughter puts us all at ease. An appropriate use of humor, naming the adversity ahead of time with humor and lightheartedness, acknowledges that you too are a team member and you will be there with them in the challenging situations. Diffuse nervous energy or overwhelm with appropriate humor. If you can pull-off self-deprecating humor you can endear your team and humanize yourself.

Empathy 101: show yourself to be approachable and accessible. Be available and in the “trenches” when your team is. The time to be seen and available is when your team needs you the most – the challenging times. Your humility and ability to “suffer” right along with them humanizes and creates a deeper level of commitment. It will pay off dividends in the future.

Despite the necessity of team identity and unity, people need to be seen and treated as individuals. This means holding individuals, not teams, accountable for unacceptable practices as well as singling out individuals for praise above and beyond group accomplishment. If people start to think that individual behavior doesn’t matter and that the leader notices only group actions, people begin to care less about their own conduct and choices, the team performance suffers.

The environment you create at the beginning of the project sets a tone for the entire experience. Humanizing your leadership builds a team founded on openness and trust, communicates clear expectations, and demonstrates a caring and compassionate attitude internally All of which yields a cohesive and executing team.

–Matt Walker integrates adventure and leadership, he spends more nights in a sleeping bag each year than a bed and is the founder of Inner Passage. His latest book is ‘Adventure in Everything’. Follow him at @InnerPassage


About the author

Matt Walker stands for adventure. Walker is the author of 'Adventure in Everything' and founder of Inner Passage (