How Backpacking Made CamelBak's CEO a Better Leader

We talked to CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy, who’s been backpacking since she was 5, about how her wilderness experiences have shaped her leadership and career.
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We talked to CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy, who’s been backpacking since she was 5, about how her wilderness experiences have shaped her leadership and career.
leadership sally mccoy

CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy learned a lot about leadership through her experiences in the outdoors. (Photo courtesy Sally McCoy)

Research shows companies with more women in leadership roles perform better financially. But sometimes you need to get out to lean in. We talked to CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy, who’s been backpacking since she was 5, about how her wilderness experiences have shaped her career.

When did you first really feel like a leader in the outdoors?

When I was 13, on a NOLS course, we had a hurt instructor who needed to be evacuated. We worked 24 hours to make it happen and then were 10 miles from camp in the afternoon. Everyone was beat but I volunteered to lead us back.There were no trails but we got within 2 miles of camp at dusk. I had to make a route finding choice and even with the team input, I picked the wrong way. We ended up bivying on ice and boulders that night because continuing was too treacherous.It was a great leadership experience.I learned that you don’t always make the right decision as a leader, but you need to own that decision. There was nowhere to hide from my responsibility.

Do you see a connection between leading in the outdoors and leading in the business world?

Good decision-making gets really honed outdoors. You take in a lot of info, make the best choice possible, push forward with a sense of humor, and live with the consequences. In both, you’re not always going to be right, but you want to be consistent, have a point of view, and articulate where you want to go and have a plan.

Why do you think women are less likely to lead in the backcountry?

It could be a lack of self-confidence, but it could also be the idea that “I’m secure enough that I don’t have to call myself ‘leader,’ and it’s more important to somebody else.” I think women should ask themselves why they aren’t leading. Are you happy participating the way you are? Do you need more skills training? To practice in a low-stakes setting?

But there’s also a saying: If the leader’s lost, you’re lost. Even if you’re following, you should be active. If you think we’re making a wrong turn, it’s your job to speak up. That’s what you should do both in business and in the outdoors.