3 Things Every Leader Can Learn From A Park Ranger

Mammoth Cave Historic Tour Cave Entrance

Visiting Mammoth cave

My wife and I have a goal of seeing all the National Parks before our boys graduate High School. The twins are 4 and our oldest is 6, so we have 12 years. Which might seem like a lot of time, but let’s be honest. Time flies. And we have 61 parks to experience. This weekend my family and I checked Mammoth Cave National Park of our list. Mammoth is park #8 as a family.

The parks have been a blessing. Each park awakens an instinct within, an appreciation for the terrain and the experience. To explain, let’s take Zion and the Grand Canyon as examples. While visiting the Grand Canyon and Zion, we learned that persistence pays off. While hiking the Narrows at Zion, we walked upstream against the currents of the Spring River. A challenge, yes, but it was not an impassible, rushing river. In fact, some parts of the river barely looked like they were moving. But you know that the river’s force created the valley, slowly, and steadily over time.

Mammoth Cave is all about trust. Trust, and remembering to practice rhythmic breathing. Breath in through your nose while counting to 4. Hold your breath for 3 second. Exhale out through your mouth for 5 seconds. While the Grand Canyon has heights and sheer cliffs, Mammoth Cave has dark holes that you can’t see the bottom of with names like “Bottomless Pit” and “Purgatory”.

Most tour experiences last about 2 hours and cover a variety of distance. One tour option is 6 hours. The tours we selected were “Domes and Dripstones” and the “Historic Tour” (Yellow Highlighted Route in the picture below). Both tours were of the 2-hour variety. Which is about the most my nerves could handle.

At the start of each tour, you are introduced to your Park Ranger Tour Guides. The Ranger’s role is to help you navigate the underground labyrinth of tunnels, pits, sink holes, fissures, cracks, and underground rivers. The way it works is one Ranger manages the front of the line and one manages the back. And these individuals are greatly outnumbered as most tour sizes are between 70 and 90 people. Talk about pressure. These two rangers are responsible for the lives of 90 people. Traveling 280 feet underground. Across a 2-mile hike. For 2 hours. With no emergency exits.

Would you give them your trust?

We obviously did. Mammoth Cave enjoys about 2 million visitors a year, with about 500,000 of them taking cave tours. I am assuming there are some dropouts, but I couldn’t find that number. But 500,000. 500,000 people entrust their lives to complete strangers. Which beckons the question. What makes people trust these rangers? Is it the uniform?

I can’t speak for others, as to why they may be giving of their trust. But from my perspective there were 3 things that they did that helped to create trust for me and my family, along with some ideas on how leaders can apply these concepts.

Be Human  

The Park Rangers were human. They were forthcoming about their experience, they asked questions that allowed them to get to know the people in their tour group, and they expressed gratitude.

Upon meeting the Park Ranger, you are engaged in a quick story about why the Park Ranger pursued a career as a Ranger and how long they have been doing it. They share details about where they are from, their favorite part of the park, and how many tours they have led. They then switch gears and begin asking questions about where people in the tour group are from. To show that they have heard the hometowns, they will repeat the towns out loud. To show that they were listening, they circle back, and asks follow up questions about specific hometowns, gathering additional details on sports teams, weather, traffic, and other interests. Then, they will make a joke about losing some of the “Duke fans” during the 2 hour tour, or something of that nature. To close, they thank you for visiting Mammoth Cave and express gratitude for you traveling whatever distance you might have traveled to be there.

If you are familiar with the concept of AIDET – which stands for acknowledge, introduce, duration, explanation, and thank; you have probably realized that every Park Ranger gives their AIDET before the tour group even leaves the check in point. AIDET, for those that may be learning of the idea for the first time, was popularized by a gentleman named Quint Studer, with the Studer Group. The Studer Group’s whole approach is to give leaders very simple, repeatable tools. Tools that can be used to create trust and reduce anxiety when providing service to another person. 

As a leader, I encourage you to find creative ways to deliver your AIDET, and to remember that the best way to get someone to share something about themselves, is to share something about yourself first. It is called being vulnerable.

Be Transparent

The Park Rangers were transparent about the risk.

Before you enter the cave, the Park Ranger pulls out a small laminated card that provides a detailed description about the risks of the tour. This isn’t your sugar-coated explanation of what might happen. It is an in your face warning sign that emergencies can arise as you traverse the terrain.

You are warned that if you have a heart condition, trouble breathing, are afraid of tight spaces, or have a fear of heights you should strongly consider your limitations. The Park Ranger shares that it is their goal to achieve safety for all. Then they leave the choice up to you, as the tour tickets aren’t collected until after this information is shared. Only after you accept this risk, do they collect the tickets. Everything up to that point is information gathering, so that you can make an informed decision.

How does this apply to leadership? For me, this experience was liberating. I felt that I had a voice in the matter, and that I was going to be supported in whatever decision I made. I actually observed someone who ended up dropping out of the tour, and the Park Ranger celebrated them for practicing healthy boundaries. As a leader, I hope that you can role model these same behaviors. Give your people the information they need to decide, give them space to decide, encourage them to practice healthy boundaries, and embrace whatever decision they make.

Create Safety and Belonging

The Park Rangers created a sense of community.

Prior to entering the cave, the Park Ranger creates a sense of community and shared accountability. This is achieved in two ways. The first is by sharing the vision and purpose of the National Parks, which is to set aside, and protect land and resources so that future generations can enjoy them. The Park Ranger asks that you act and behave like an owner of the park, because you are. They ask that you take pride in the park and fulfill your obligation of protecting the Park during your visit by doing things like staying on the marked trail, not defacing the cave, leaving things as they lay, and taking your trash with you.

The second thing the Park Ranger does to create a sense of community is that they create a common goal, which is safety for all during the tour. They share that in an emergency, the first responders are going to be the person in front of you and behind you. And that information about whatever is happening will have to be shared by playing a giant game of “telephone”, passing information from person to person.

As a leader, I hope that the idea of creating a sense of community resonates. I hope that you share the vision often and invite your people to live out the vision by giving them very specific actions they can take to fulfill the vision. For most organizations, these are expressed as values. As a leader, you cannot just promote these ideals, you have to role model them.

In regard to the shared goal. As a leader, I hope you can have the same humility that the Park Ranger does when they accept that they can’t possibly provide safety for all. That the only way to achieve the goal is to hand ownership of it over to someone else. To empower those people to achieve the goal, and to give them the tools to get there. In the case of the cave tour, this tool is communication and the obligation to speak up when something goes wrong, as it is in many organizations. To this end, as a leader, you have to ask yourself, how are you creating channels for information sharing, and how have you created an environment where people are encouraged to speak up?

The last thing about this shared goal, is to celebrate success and to learn from setbacks. While touring the caves we achieved safety. At the end of the tour, each Park Ranger personally thanked us for our engagement during the tour and for helping to be safe during our time underground. With this, I have one last thought. As a leader, how do you celebrate success and recognize your people?

More importantly, how do you create an environment where people feel safe to take risks, such as traveling 280 feet underground?

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Thomas West, MBB

I am passionate about helping organizations get better, by helping people be their best. My role as an ASQ Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt is to coach and mentor others to become creative problem-solvers and passionate change agents. This can only be achieved by giving others the tools, skills, and mindset they need to make and lead change.