A dense carpet of ferns adorned the trail along this stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

It took all of the will power I could muster to get off the fallen log beside the trail and hoist my pack onto my shoulders. It wasn’t even lunchtime and I was beyond tired. I was weary. The overcast skies were not helping matters. They seemed to mirror my gloomy attitude.

For the past five days, I had averaged 1.25 miles per hour, including breaks. If I hiked for 10 hours, I would typically cover between twelve and fourteen miles while climbing and descending several thousand feet. It wasn’t a stellar pace but I was ahead of my schedule and it felt good. I had developed my “trail legs.” I had found a good rhythm. Each step seemed to impart a sense harmony with my surroundings and foster a peaceful contentment within. It was physically tiring but emotionally and spiritually uplifting. I was truly enjoying the trek.

Not today. Today was different. Today was hard.

It wasn’t supposed to be. I had left the top of Tray Mountain around 7:30 this morning, having slept in after arriving to camp late the night before. Reviewing my guidebook before breaking camp, I familiarized myself with what lay ahead and set my goals for the day. I thought I knew what the day held in store for me.

During the first two miles, I would drop around 1,000 feet in elevation. After that it was relatively smooth with no more than a few hundred feet of elevation change for the next four miles. At 4,126 feet above sea level, Kelly Knob was the only significant obstacle of the day with a climb of 800 feet over the span of a mile. The other side of the knob would have a similar descent. Once I had Kelly behind me, it was a slow steady descent of into Dick’s Creek Gap at US-76, elevation 2,675. There I would meet a friend and his father around 10:00 p.m. and we’d hike another mile to a campsite.

I had all day to hike the eleven miles to our rendezvous point. Eleven easy miles. After what I had accomplished the day before, today would be easy.

Wrong.

Coming down off of Tray Mountain was hard. It wasn’t particularly steep or dangerous, but it was tiring. After 90 minutes of hiking I was only halfway down. Not to worry, once I got to the bottom the trail would flatten out and I’d find the peaceful flow again. That’s what I kept telling myself.

Going down hill sounds easier than traveling uphill, after all you have gravity on your side, right? It would seem so, but in fact, it’s can be even more difficult. Anything more than a slight grade downhill uses a different set of muscles. You have to balance the 40 pound pack on your back while leaning backwards. Often there are roots or rocks to step down from and the 12 to 24 inch drop can be jarring and disrupt the pace of your hike.

After more than two hours, I finally reached Steeltrap Gap at the foot of Tray Mountain where the trail turned sharply upward. I climbed 300 feet over the next half mile. The path leveled off for an instant, then dropped 300 feet over another half mile. For the next four miles I would repeat this pattern over and over and over again. Climb 300 feet, descend 300 feet.

The skies were grey and the lush flora had been robbed of its vibrant appeal. Rather than shielding the hot sun, the clouds seemed to invite an army of no-see-ums, little gnats whose singular mission in life seemed to be to explore every orifice in my head. Buzzing my ears and teasing my eyes with every step, they followed me for hours. I was exhausted but when I stopped to rest, the gnats multiplied in number.

My decision to skip supper last night had zapped my energy today. But there was more to it than that. Today was supposed to be easy. It wasn’t.

AT Lesson 10: The Importance of Managing Expectations

My trip down from Tray Mountain and the nine miles that followed were physically, emotionally, and even spiritually taxing. They were the hardest eleven miles of the 137 that I hiked during this trip.

On paper, the day had looked to be an easy one. But the guidebook hadn’t promised that. That was my interpretation of the elevation graph. The guidebook also couldn’t have predicted the gray weather that would permeate my surroundings and attitude, the annoying little gnats that would follow me for miles, or the lack of energy that would hamper my efforts and make even the slightest change of elevation a monumental challenge.

I had told myself that today would be easy and that’s what I expected. When my expectations weren’t fulfilled, my mood soured and my reality seemed worse than it actually was. My hiking buddy from Kentucky experienced the same let-down and it drove him from the trail.

As leaders at home, at work, and in volunteer organizations, we must set realistic expectations. That doesn’t mean we should be pessimistic and paint a dour picture of the road ahead. We shouldn’t. We should create a bright vision for the future and outline a path that will take us there. We should get people excited about that future and motivate them to forge ahead. Yet we also should give them fair warning. To get to the future we want may require effort and trials, ups and downs, challenges and obstacles. But the reward will be worth the journey. And when things get tough we must keep moving forward, keeping the goal in mind.

With clients, it’s better to under promise and over deliver. The same deliverable can be either be viewed as a success or a failure depending on what is expected. For example, if you promise to deliver in three months and it takes you four, you’ve failed. If you set the initial expectation that it will take five or six months, but deliver in four, you’ve succeeded. This is especially true if you’ve communicated progress along the way.

Expectations matter. Manage them.

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