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Leadership in the Face of Adversity

Tags: Fellowship

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Ryan Burton, Fellowship Class of 2016

At 12,000 feet above sea level, I found it was much easier to see the celestial masterpieces that sparkled the dark sky. After finding Ursa Minor and Orion, I took a break from the sky and attempted to fall asleep. Although I was proud of myself and my Outward Bound team for spending the night on a mountain pass that sat like a  rooftop above tree line, I was even more satisfied with a view I saw earlier en route to that point.

For over two decades, El Pomar Fellows have embarked on an Outward Bound course to build character, enhance team dynamics, and strengthen individual leadership skills. This year's course took Fellows to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Paul Duba, a longtime instructor and course director for Outward Bound, challenged all of the Fellows to think about how we would lead through the inevitable adversity that we would experience over the next week. "Leadership in the face of adversity" became a tag line that echoed in my brain as I began my venture into the mountains.

On the third day of hiking on windy trails and camping under thistle-filled trees, adversity manifested itself in the form of a 50 foot cliff. Although I do not consider myself to be much of a rock climber, I made summiting this cliff my personal challenge. Halfway up the cliff, the rocks seemed to spread in front of me like a labyrinth that I struggled to decipher. To make matters worse, I bruised my knees on the face of the cliff and my arms started to feel hefty, unable to hold onto the rocks that I attempted to grab. Feet planted on to two rocks, I turned up the tag line in my head: how could I lead through the adversity I was experiencing?

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From my vantage point I could only see rocks that were immediately in front of me. I reached out to other Fellows and Outward Bound staff members and asked if they could see any rocks that I could grab or step on. They helped me identify rocks that my feet could latch on to and my arms could clutch. I made a move to my left that let me identify a path that I was able to take to the summit. Exhausted and proud, I let out a huge grin as I embraced the view from the top of the cliff. 

The adversity that I went through on the cliff is not unlike the adversity that I will experience through my work at El Pomar. In my various programs, there will be moments when I am forced to work through ambiguous and difficult situations where the path (or solution) is not clear. Having the humility to ask for support may lead to a better outcome; displaying vulnerability as a leader may allow the collective group to become stronger. I recognize that it is particularly important to take a collaborative approach when entering unfamiliar communities so those people who are from the community can identify the needs that they want to address. During Outward Bound I realized that I need to climb a cliff (overcome some form of adversity, regardless if it is grand or small) every single day of my life to continue developing into the leader that I want to become. 

Although the most glamorous views on our Outward Bound trip were the peaks and passes, the most rewarding one for me was atop of that stout and tricky cliff. Because on top of that cliff in the heart of those jagged mountains, I felt clarity that was clearer than the constellations I admired in the star-studded sky. The clarity I felt came in the face of adversity and by actualizing the tag line ringing in my head.