24October 2017

Zen and the Art of Guiding: 3 Lessons for Work and Life

Guiding is about managing risk.

From the outside, a guide might look like someone who scored the best gig ever – getting paid to ski powder all day; and we can’t deny, that’s certainly part of it.

But while you’re focused 100% on enjoyment, as you should be, your guide is balancing variables and possible outcomes, shifting and observing so that he or she keeps a nice fat margin of safety around everyone’s actions, through each unpredictable moment.

Heli-ski guide observing backcountry terrain and helicopter

On the flight out, they’re watching for new avalanche activity, new wind loading, new anything – and putting that together from what they saw happening the day before. How the snow creaks or settles underfoot, and at what elevation or angle it’s different – guides need to notice everything.

Every relationship, every change, tells them something. Where are the hazards, and how are they shifting? Where will we find the best snow this morning? And where this afternoon?

Their task is to stay tuned in to all the changes while hosting, informing and entertaining their group. It’s a full-on, all senses on deck kind of job!

And assessment and observation never stops, because Mother Nature doesn’t sit still.

For all the best-laid plans and weather forecasts, experience quickly shows you that you need to be prepared, but also, prepare to be surprised.

You can make a plan based on the current situation, but plans get ditched as those variables change.

Heli-ski guide digging an avalanche and snow profile determining weak layers in the snowpack

Two all-too-true cliches apply: you gotta go with the flow, and stay in the present.

Guiding may be a great example of staying steady through change, but so many of us can relate. If there’s three lessons a guide can share, it’s this:

Control is illusion. No matter how carefully you prepare, and plan, there will always be surprises. Whether it’s a heli-skiing trip, a sales meeting, or a new product launch, we never have 100% control over the situation. There’s always an element of risk.

Good leadership is about flexibility. It’s not about “having the perfect plan” and “sticking to it.” Leadership requires flexibility, improvisation, and resilience. Great leaders are willing to adapt to whatever is happening in the present moment – whether it’s a sudden snowstorm, a colleague who unexpectedly resigns, or an economic recession.

We are not the directors of the world around us. We are participators. But this doesn’t mean we are “powerless” or “helpless.” In ever moment, we hold a great deal of personal power. We can find our centre in the midst of the chaos and choose the next move.

We must accept, “This is happening. It’s not what I expected, but I can handle this.” That moment of acceptance is a turning point – it’s the moment we shift from helplessness into resourcefulness and resilience.

We may curse the unexpected turn, the plan gone awry, but I think there’s a deeper part of us that needs the unexpected. That seeks it.

The thrill we feel among untouched peaks is not the thrill of being in a predictable environment. It’s the sense of NOT knowing what’s around the next corner. It’s the human need for adventure.

We bring our skills and resourcefulness to the environment, we play safe, we feel small.

In our books, there’s no better feeling.

Wild backcountry + no cell service + pure rebellion? You might want to read The Joy of Unplugging next.



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