Recently, I had the pleasure of backcountry Snowcat Skiing for the first time. I shared four days with my husband and a group of new friends, being driven up a mountain in a Snowcat at Baldface Lodge in British Columbia, skiing deep snow, powder and carving my own trails.
It was exhilarating, and I came away inspired by parallels between aspects of this outdoor adventure and the challenges of being in the right seat in business and career. One parallel I contemplated was that in business, as on the mountain, you must authentically determine whether you are a trailblazer or a trail follower.
Here are five observations on how your role might influence your experience:
- Assessing risk versus reward. A trailblazer is likely to take a risk of nearly any size with the prospect of a reward of nearly any size. A trail follower is more likely to play it safe with risk—unless the risk is moderate and the reward substantial.
An entrepreneur is a trailblazer, who typically blazes a trail for others to follow through unsettled and unknown territory. While a serial entrepreneur knows the ropes, there is always an element of the uncontrollable that s/he is prepared to take the lead on. The reward is beyond the financial outcome—it is to create, to innovate and to fulfill a passion to be a pioneer.
A trail follower, likely more conservative, opts to visualize by being guided by the trailblazer and/or reassured that the degree of risk is contained. The trail follower can be the trailblazer after few trials… or not.
- Moving forward with confidence. A trailblazer enters every situation with overt confidence, because s/he must. A trail follower can develop confidence after beginning a task.
A trail follower might not be ready to be the first to create the trail, until they have been guided enough times that they suddenly get inspired to go first. To be a trailblazer, you must have an inner confidence and trust yourself.
An individual contributor, a manager, an executive and an entrepreneur all can be trailblazers and trail followers at one time or another. Limited skills, inexperience, lack of passion, doubt and linear thinking (to name a few) can limit the ability to move forward with confidence. A strong trailblazer is conscious of his actions. Moving forward with confidence will inspire trail followers. (Moving with arrogance will not particularly create a following.)
- Perception of distance from the safe/proven track. A trailblazer is rarely on a safe or proven track, because s/he is creating the track with each step forward. A trail follower must assess whether to follow exactly in the footsteps of those who came before, or how far from the safe/proven track s/he is willing to veer.
- Avoiding “tree wells” or other pitfalls. One of the risks a trailblazer accepts is the potential for being the first to hit unexpected pitfalls or obstacles. Trail followers might move more quickly, since the obstacles ahead are likely to have been identified or resolved before they started on the path. However, they can’t assume that there won’t be obstacles, and they too must be vigilant anticipating and addressing their obstacles.
Great leaders are comfortable with the uncontrollable and often thrive with the challenges of the unexpected. They must be reliable when guiding trail followers. The trail followers must develop their own capacity to manage obstacles and not be overly dependent on the trailblazers. Both have to take accountability to resolve issues that are presented on their path.
- Landing on your butt—falling hard and getting back up. Whether you’re a trailblazer or a trail follower, there’s always a chance you’ll land on your behind sometimes. What matters in these moments is how you get back up. Falling is humbling. As a trailblazer accustomed to opening the way, you need to rely on others to help you get back up. As a trail follower, you may also need to lend a hand to the one whom you wouldn’t think would fall up ahead.
There’s nothing inherently better about being a trailblazer than being a trail follower. Where the world needs trailblazers to show us what’s possible and where we can go, it also needs trail followers—the people who put new discoveries through their paces and standardize new approaches to things. In life, in the various sectors of our lives, we must embrace the fact that we are not a trailblazer all the time or a trail follower.