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Leadership Lessons from the Backpacking Trail: Five Key Roles You Need at Work

Backpacking is one of my favorite hobbies. I’ve backpacked for nearly 40 years, and it has created some of the most remarkable and inspiring experiences in my life. For the past 10 years, I have led the backpacking program for our Boy Scout Troop, taking anywhere from six to 65 people into the backcountry. I have found that there are many leadership lessons from the backpacking trail that apply to our teams in the office.

And one of the most important lessons, is understanding how these five key roles from the backpacking trail can help your team at work.

Creating these roles within your team will support you, instill discipline to combat change, and strengthen your leadership performance.

Heading out on the trail, we first organize ourselves into crews of eight to 12 people. We have our map and our plan for where to camp, get water, and take breaks. But this plan must adjust based on how the crew performs—if the crew hikes slower than expected, then we need to adjust.

Just as important as the map are clearly defined roles on the trail. We refer to the main body of people as the “train.” When walking on the trail, the train is always facing forward on the trail, and it can sometimes be difficult to hear each other .

In Scouting, we typically teach three roles: The Leader, the Navigator, and the Scout.

  • The Leader is responsible for determining the hiking plan for the day, as well as assigning roles for the campsite (such as who is responsible for cooking, setting up tents, getting water, etc.).
  • The Navigator is responsible for ensuring we are on the right path by using the map and compass. The Navigator hikes next to the leader to ensure the latter has good visibility and understanding of where we are, so the rate can be calculated and the crew performance managed.
  • The Scout walks at the front of the crew, watching for trail markers, and any trail signs when there is a split in the trail. Their job is to ensure we are on a trail, and communicate with the Leader and Navigator to ensure when there is a turn, they are on the right path.

Translating the Roles

The Leader, Navigator, and Scout are each essential roles to have within your own teams at work.

The Leader could be a department head, project leader, or someone responsible for moving the team from point A to point B.

The Navigator is the person dedicated to helping develop and manage the project plan in support of the leader. They may create the schedule, budget, or design for whatever it is you’re trying to create.

The Scout is that person always looking ahead. For example, they could be from the R&D team or a visionary who makes certain you’re headed in a strategic direction. They focus on the future to ensure that the activity or actions you take today are still moving you toward the goals and outcomes you seek.

Two additional roles that I learned early on from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) that are equally important and truly apply in business, are the “Smoother” and the “Sweeper.”

On the trail, the Smoother is the first person in the train. The role of the Smoother is to maintain communication with the Scout, so that if the Scout stops, the Smoother knows to slow the train down.

The Smoother also “smooths” the path for the train in true backcountry, where there may not always be a trail (think of walking through a lot of brush and making sure branches don’t hit people in the faces, or ensuring everyone sees the path). In our work teams, the Smoother is the person who ensures the team understands what’s being asked, as well as the plan for how you execute it. Think of Leaders, Scouts, or Navigators who may know the plan, but don’t communicate it well to those who have to help execute it. Having a Smoother on your team ensures everyone’s aligned and headed in the same direction.

The Sweeper is the last person in the train and serves two key functions: 1) They ensure that no one falls behind them— making sure no one gets lost or left behind. 2) Because they are the last in line and facing forward, they can see up the train and observe if anyone is starting to get too tired (usually, they start to trip or get wobbly in their legs). When they see this, they can call out for the crew to stop and take a break or at least notify the Leader. At the office, the Sweeper is the person who has a pulse on team morale, often knowing when the team is becoming overwhelmed or unclear of how to proceed. I have found this to be one of the most valuable roles in my teams, because with the other roles all focused on key areas, it can be easy to become disconnected or unaware of how the team is performing. The Sweeper focuses on this specifically.

Putting the Roles to Work

Who do you have in your five key roles? Do they understand their focus, and how and when to update you? Like a crew of 12- to 14-year-olds, when the terrain presents unexpected changes, or the crew performs differently than originally planned, it can quickly become chaotic, and even scary, at times. Finding water sources that are dried up in 100-degree plus temperatures can challenge any trail leader. Creating these roles within your team supports you, instills discipline to combat change, and strengthens your leadership performance.

The same holds true at the office, where we may not encounter dry water holes and extreme heat, but we feel the pressure to produce faster when unexpected issues arise. Having identified your Leader, Scout, Smoother, Navigator, and Sweeper can help you overcome these and other challenges successfully.


Do you need help guiding your team? Contact us to learn about Bill’s leadership keynote speakingexecutive coaching, and facilitation services.