“We’re almost there,” my hiking buddy panted as he continued his slow gait in front of me. For the past couple of hours, the rhythmic clicking of his trekking poles had set the pace of our ascent like a metronome meters a slow, melodic song. We had already climbed well over a thousand feet as we sought to conquer yet another mountain along the Appalachian Trail.
The dense canopy of foliage that had obscured our view for much of the morning yielded momentarily and we could see daylight through the trees ahead. Daylight that promised the summit of the mountain was near. Daylight that meant the end to our rigorous trudge uphill was at hand.
We paused momentarily to sip from our water bottles, rehydrating before our final push to the top of this nameless obstacle in our path. Then we set out again with a renewed vigor, knowing that the end was in sight. Click. Click. Click.
The path turned sharply, another switchback along our ascent as we pushed on. A steep slope upward was on our left; the mountain gave way to a abrupt drop-off on our right. Keeping an eye on the path, we chose our footing carefully.
The trail curved further to the right. Every step taking us further up the mountain and further away from the distant light we had just seen through the canopy
“Ugh! You’re kidding me,” my companion groaned in exasperation. I stopped and looked ahead. The trail continued upward toward a summit that we could not see before, toward a summit much higher than we had previously thought. Just when we thought that our uphill trek was drawing to an end and a beautiful vista was within reach, the finish line had moved. The newfound vigor we had garnered just ten minutes ago evaporated.
Our energy depleted, we were now skeptical about this new “summit.” Was it the real peak of the mountain? Or was it another false summit?
Dispirited, we continued climbing.
Half an hour later when we finally crested the mountain, we were rewarded for our efforts with a stunning view of the Smoky Mountains. We dropped our packs and enjoyed a well-earned lunch break. The stunning landscapes made it all worthwhile. Yet we wondered just how many of those mountains we would climb in our circuitous trek northward.
AT Lesson #5: Beware of Moving Goals
In our trek up this mountain, we had fallen victim to what is commonly called a false summit. What we thought was the top of the mountain and the end of our uphill journey turned out to only be only a ridge line. Disappointingly, the real summit was still a quarter of a mile away and several hundred feet above us.
Likewise in the office with our teams and at home with our kids, we can easily and inadvertently create false summits. When our expectations are not clearly communicated, when their goals are not clearly understood, disappointment is sure to follow. We view it as their fault for falling short of the standards we’ve set. They view it as a moved goal or as if nothing is ever good enough. Future goals are understandably seen with a suspicious eye.
When working with your team or with kids, take great care to ensure that everyone understands what is expected. Clearly communicate your requirements for the quality of work and the timeline for delivery. Help them create or identify metrics that can be used to gauge progress toward the goal. Offer feedback frequently. Celebrate minor successes. If circumstances change and the summit must be moved, work with them to adjust. Help them to understand why the change is happening.
False summits are disheartening but easily avoidable. Don’t inadvertently create them for your team.