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Decision Making and Judgment on a Kayaking Trip

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Leadership 2nd Edition eBook by Bruce Martin,Mary Breunig,Mark Wagstaff & Marni A. Goldenberg.

Nate and Meg were leading a group of 10 people on a five-day kayaking trip in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior. On the second day, they had visited the sea caves on Sand Island and were preparing for a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) open-water crossing to York Island. It was noon, and the wind was starting to pick up. A few members of the group voiced their need to get out of the boats and stretch their legs. Other members were starting to get hungry. Nate and Meg suggested that the group take a quick snack break while the two of them took a moment to discuss the crossing.


Nate and Meg knew that they had only a couple of minutes to come to a decision. Meg predicted that the wind would pick up as the day progressed, and she suggested that the group make the crossing now despite their discomfort. If the group was unable to get to York Island that afternoon, they would have to backtrack to the mainland, missing out on the trip to the Raspberry Island lighthouse and the day hike on Oak Island. Nate was concerned about the fact that some of the participants were hungry and uncomfortable in their boats. He wasn't sure they should set off on a breezy 1.5-mile crossing under those conditions. He understood that the group would be unable to complete the proposed itinerary but reminded Meg that many interesting options were still available if the group was unable to complete the full loop. He suggested that they return to their previous campsite to have lunch and reassess the group's fitness and the weather conditions.


Although she attentively listened to Nate's concerns, Meg disagreed with his assessment of the situation and his suggestion that the group return to camp. This was her fourth trip in Apostle Islands and she had not yet made the full loop with any of her groups. No other trip leader seemed to come back without completing the proposed itinerary except for her. She was concerned about what people would think of her if she returned without completing the intended trip route yet again. She was also questioning her own decision-making ability and wondering whether her overcautious nature had prevented her from completing the loop on past trips. She wanted to push herself mentally and felt that she had the technical skills and stamina to encourage the group members to push themselves physically. She really did believe that the group would be fine with the crossing. It was just a matter of going for it.


In the couple of minutes that Meg and Nate had been discussing the situation, the wind had begun to blow a bit stronger. This further impelled Meg to conclude that the group should make the crossing immediately before the weather worsened. For Nate, this was a clear indicator that the group should stay on Sand Island. In the end, Nate, Meg, and the group decided that the safest course of action would be to stay on Sand Island. The group enjoyed a wonderful day of hiking.


Leaders make decisions and facilitate group decision-making multiple times daily while guiding outdoor trips. For this reason, developing decision-making skills is a key component of outdoor leadership education. Although this concept may seem somewhat straightforward, developing a process of decision making is no small task, in part because there is no such thing as a perfect decision. Consider, for example, Nate and Meg's situation. What do you think is the best decision concerning this scenario? How did you come to your decision?


Developing a process of decision making should not be confused with the need to develop sound judgment. Judgment is based on past experience and the outcomes of decisions that were made. In essence, judgment is a process of gathering relevant data. These data are then used to inform the decision-making process. Both decision making and judgment are competencies that are difficult to teach and learn. Developing these competencies requires the ability to see potential outcomes that may result from a decision. Consider the practice of meditation, which involves "opening the third eye" - the eye that sees and hears everything. The third eye focuses on the sixth chakra in the body, which is in the middle of the forehead between the eyebrows. It is the center of wisdom and seeing and is a symbolic representation of intuitive wisdom that helps people see the big picture more clearly. Outdoor leaders need to adopt this metaphoric third eye as part of the process of developing judgment and decision making. The third eye develops with experience; leaders will begin to see patterns, and their judgment will improve with each experience.


Developing the ability to see the big picture and recognize patterns is integral to decision making and judgment. In many ways, developing a third eye with which to see the big picture is a bit like playing chess. Avid chess players often describe how good players need the ability to make good decisions with the added pressure of time. Perhaps even more important, they need to be able to forecast the result of their decisions. Chess players need to be prepared to adjust their next decision if the forecasted result does not happen, which is often the case. In this sense, playing chess is similar to outdoor leadership. Leadership ability depends in part on a person's ability to make timely, high-quality decisions that anticipate myriad outcomes. One study that tested the effects of time pressure on chess players concluded that expert decision making develops over time and is based on an ability to recognize and respond to patterns (Klein, 2008). It could be similarly concluded that a leader's judgment and decision-making abilities will improve over time with an increased knowledge of how decisions are made and their effects - knowledge that is gained through personal experience.


This chapter introduces the role of judgment in decision making, highlights some of the variables in decision making, identifies the differences between simple and complex decisions, presents models for decision making, introduces methods of decision making, and integrates ideas of decision making and leadership styles. The goal is for the reader to use this theoretical knowledge to develop judgment and decision-making abilities that they can apply to their own outdoor leadership experiences.

Learn more about Outdoor Leadership, Second Edition.