Outside Insight | Fostering Clear Pathways to Leadership

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, find out the process to becoming a leader and consider what steps your committee can take to make our leadership pathways more transparent.
Nick Block Nick Block
Volunteer Collaborations Manager
August 21, 2021
Outside Insight | Fostering Clear Pathways to Leadership

The Mountaineers is an organization that lives and breathes through the hard work and dedication of our talented volunteers. For 115 years, our programs have taught the next generation of hikers, climbers, paddlers, and more, and these students have chosen to contribute back to the programs they came from, sustaining our community. Yet, as demand for our programs continues to grow, recruiting a sufficient number of leaders to run programs is a constant challenge for volunteers within the organization.

Under the current system, aspiring leaders in many of our activities find it challenging to understand and navigate the requirements to become a leader in their activity. One strength of our programs is that they’re tailored to local branch communities, but when the process to becoming a leader varies by activity and branch, it can create confusion. Transparency about the process is necessary to encourage those who are interested in leadership opportunities, and a lack of it creates a perception of needing to “know the right people and make the right connections” to have a role as a leader in The Mountaineers.

A well-documented and accessible leader pathway is a critical step towards inviting new volunteers into the club. It also helps volunteers and staff point aspiring leaders in the right direction, and is an important step towards increasing equity and inclusion. Representation matters, and as we aspire to be a club where everyone truly feels welcome in the outdoors, our leadership pathways need to be open to new voices. So how can volunteers make their leadership pathway more transparent? Let’s look at a few examples already in place.

Climbing modular leadership

The Climbing Leadership Development Committee (LDC) is a group that represents all branches to tackle challenges related to leadership within climbing. This committee, with the guidance of the Climbing Summit group, has been working for several years to overhaul their leadership structure to a modular format. This format allows leaders of varying skill levels and backgrounds to work their way into a leadership position, lowering the initial barrier of entry and distributing leadership across a wider pool of volunteers. Additionally, each role has its own requirements and prerequisites, and the process to obtain leader status is documented on the website.

For example, the original leadership structure offered only one role: Climb Leader. This position required years of training and experience, and for good reason. A Climb Leader takes students and members on trips into all types of technical climbing terrain. Alpine rock, glacier, ice, or single-pitch climbing at the crag; the Climb Leader was responsible for doing it all. As such, the process to get the qualification was daunting. The documentation to become a Climb Leader was also different between branches, and the information limited. This not only made things challenging for aspiring leaders to navigate, but it also placed a huge burden on Climb Leaders to be responsible for running every type of climbing activity, as no other types of leaders were able to take on lower-level roles.

Many branches recognized this problem early on. Several had already created their own version of a modular leadership structure, but all leader types were housed under the single “Climb Leader” badge. Because of the single badge system with multiple branches, different structures, and limited visibility between them, things were hard to track for volunteers. It was even harder for members and aspiring leaders. With more branches wanting to adopt their own version of the tiered system, it became apparent that seven branches, all with their own unique badges and leader structures with varying requirements, would quickly become overwhelming. Thanks to the hard work of the LDC and Climbing Summit group, a unified system is now in place.

With the new structure, there are now 11 leadership positions. While adding this many roles does appear to increase the complexity of leader standards, it is simpler overall than each branch running their own system. Now, our Climb Leaders don’t have to shoulder the burden of leading every type of activity. Aspiring leaders can choose pathways that they are most interested in, and barriers to entry are lower. The badges that represent these 11 leadership positions are on the website, and each badge includes the scope of the role as well as how to achieve it. Everyone can see what those roles are and exactly what they need to obtain them.

Another benefit is that the barrier to entry in climbing leadership is much lower. While the high-level leaders still maintain the same rigorous qualifications necessary for the demands of leading climbing trips in the alpine, the entry-level roles make it much less burdensome for someone with less experience to start their leadership journey. For example, the Climbing Conditioner Leader needs a year of hiking experience and to have demonstrated leadership through several Mountaineers outings. This means that someone who has a lot of experience in leadership, mentoring, and maybe even another outdoor activity can get started in climbing leadership, even if their technical climbing skills are not as strong yet.

While climbing is one of our most complex activities to run, this structure sets the climbers up for success by giving current leaders, prospective leaders, and members a clear view into what leadership in climbing looks like. However, other committees will not want or need to implement a structure this complex. So what does a simpler version of a clear pathway to leadership look like?

Setting the standard for trail running

In 2019, the Foothills Trail Running Committee worked with other branches interested in this activity to develop the first Trail Running Standards for the club. Through this collaborative process, they created Frontcountry and Backcountry Trail Run Leader types with clearly and thoroughly documented roles and responsibilities, including the process to achieve leader status. Like the Climb Leader roles, the descriptions are with the badge on the website. The Trail Running Activity Overview page lists the leader roles, providing a quick and easy way for anyone interested in getting involved to see how they can become a leader. Offering multiple leader types gives volunteers the flexibility to focus on their interests, not requiring more of leaders than is necessary and being mindful of volunteer bandwidth and time.

The trail runners started as a group that relied on collaboration and differing viewpoints to publish their standards. Now, they have embraced that mindset to the fullest. Most activity committees mountaineers.org 15 meet annually or bi-annually for a summit meeting to facilitate cross-branch communication and discuss important issues. A regular Trail Running Committee meeting includes members from all active branches. Their message to anyone who wants to join? Everyone is welcome - they just want all who are interested to experience the fun of mountain running.

Start simple and make it easy

Both the trail runners and the climbers built their leadership pathway through a collaborative, multi-branch effort. Some committees may have slightly different leadership processes. While it’s recommended that activity groups align on their standards, we encourage all committees to post their own leader pathways to help those interested become leaders.

Complex leader structures or even badge systems are not the only way. Simply documenting your leader types, the qualifications for each, and the process of obtaining the leadership role on a committee page can go a long way towards bringing in new leaders. Want to take things a step further? Create a subpage on your committee page dedicated to leadership in your activity.

The most important part of Mountaineers leadership pathways is providing all members easy access to get more involved. Having a consistent and well-documented leadership progression might feel like a big undertaking, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming, and it goes a long way towards making our programs more equitable for all.

Are you on an activity committee and want to help your committee better document your leader process? We encourage you to speak with your committee and document your leader process on your activity committee page. The benefits can pay dividends towards the future of your committee by providing a strong pipeline of volunteers and leaders. Our programs depend on it.


While not all options may be the best fit for your activity committee, we encourage you to see if there are any steps you can take to help clear the path to leadership:

  • Document how to become a leader on your activity committee webpage
  • Document leader types and qualifications on your activity committee webpage
  • Create a subpage on your committee webpage dedicated to pursuing leadership
  • Consider working with other branches to develop cross-committee leader standards
  • Analyze leadership structures and identify what works, what doesn’t, and what can be improved

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive.

Lead image of hikers on near White Pass on the approach to Glacier Peak by Nick Block.

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