A Leadership Journey

Moving through spectacular terrain

Moving through spectacular terrain

I just returned from my annual Executive Leadership Expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School. As usual, I am filled with inspiration and humility before the mountains, the people I was with, and the totality of the experience. And I feel inspired to share a bit of that with those who honor me by reading my posts in Bob’s Corner.

There were eleven of us: Two “instructors” of whom I was one, and nine other expedition members – six men and three women. The three women were all Navy Admirals, which says something about the intrepidity of the women the Navy promotes to Flag rank. The men included a retired former leader in cable television, the president and founder of an international business consulting firm, a financial advisor, a founder of a ground breaking international non-profit, a former test pilot now aeronautics professor, and a retired naval officer, now engaged in humanitarian work. Youngest 37, oldest 70, average age: 56. Our expedition also included 6 llamas, whose names and personalities we all got to know well.

Over seven days and six nights, we moved in a loop of close to 20 miles, between 9 and 11 thousand feet, climbed through two 11,000 foot passes, struggled with steep terrain, off-trail navigation and route-finding, managing ourselves and our llamas, both during our travels and in camp. We cooked and tented together, planned and adjusted our plans together, and when two of our llamas were injured, we adjusted paniers and load-weight accordingly. As an expedition, we dealt with whatever came our way. One of the members of our group reminded us that “if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.” God definitely chuckled a bit during our expedition.

We had a lay-over day during which some of us climbed a 12.3k peak well above the tree line, others stayed in camp and read and rested, some swam in the ‘almost cold’ mountain lake, and some successfully tried their hands at fly-fishing. They caught 35 trout, which made for quite a dinner that night.

We took care of each other, our llamas, our gear, and the environment, and left very little ‘trace’ when we departed our various campsites. Our goal was to Leave NO Trace, but we scattered the llama droppings, rather than packing them out!

That is what we did. But that is NOT what made the expedition special.

I have rarely, if ever, seen a group of people come together, and create an integrated team as quickly and as well as this group did. Working and solving problems together, we built trust within the group, all day, every day. Late in the second day of the expedition, Rick Rochelle, our very experienced expedition leader, and I were trying hard to make things flow just right. One of the women admirals pulled us both aside. “You guys need to relax. We’re having a ball out here – don’t sweat the small stuff!” The shoe was on the other foot- the students were mentoring the instructors. It was perfect – and just what we needed to hear. They were owning the expedition.

Every night, two of our expedition members shared their story – a “who am I” that focused on the key experiences that had shaped their own leadership journey. This was special and powerful – especially from such an accomplished group. It was a challenge and an opportunity for each of us to identify and share what experiences have shaped who we are. Some were light hearted and informative, others very personal and moving. All were provocative and inspiring. These stories connected us to each other, and opened doors to on-trail discussions that went deeper, and migrated to a wide variety of topics.

And all the while, we were living in and moving through some of the most spectacular mountains and valleys we’d ever seen.

It wasn’t all work – we also had fun and laughed a lot together. Our favorite source of amusement was the confrontation between Will, one of our members, and the amorous porcupine! I’ll not go into it, but it is a good story….

It was the longest period most in this group had ever gone without the accoutrements of civilization – bathrooms, showers, climate controlled buildings, kitchens, bedrooms, beds with clean sheets. We were unplugged from our computers and the daily barrage of emails and solicitations. We were without access to news, cell phones, music or the media. We were disconnected from the wider culture that nurtures us all.

We found that we were doing just fine without those things which we often consider essential to living well in the front country. We realized (again) that these things are in fact NOT essential. Without the niceties of civilization, each of us experienced a dimension of ‘quality of life’ that we rarely feel in our civilized, front-country lives.

How so? you might ask.

First, we experienced that special connection that arises when good people live together, support each other, and work toward a common purpose in challenging circumstances. A lighter version of what draws troops together in combat.

Second, we experienced a special and intimate connection to nature, in its grandest form. The eons of geologic time were palpable in the glacially cut walls and valleys we were traversing in the Wind River Range. In the face of such grandeur and magnificence, each of us experienced our own version of awe and spiritual humility, often leaving us speechless.

By choosing to get out of our comfort zones and out into nature with other similarly motivated leaders, we were taking care of our own personal well-being. Good leaders take care of their personal well-being; this enables them to better help others take care of their own well-being.

“Leadership” is a big word, with lots of nuances and meanings in different contexts. The “Leadership Journey” on this expedition was different for each of us. We all chose to take a chance, and quite simply, put ourselves out there. Each of us had our own concerns – old injuries, aches, pains, and insecurities – but we all chose to go for it, to trust each other, and set our own comfort aside in order for our tent group, our hiking group our expedition to succeed. We worked together, took care of each other, grew to trust each other, and experienced something special, something amazing together.

What does that say about “leadership?”

At the top of one of our passes, we stopped for a group photo

At the top of one of our passes, we stopped for a group photo

If any experienced leaders reading this might be interested in participating in this expedition next August, please contact me.

6 thoughts on “A Leadership Journey

  1. This sounds like a great trip. Maybe it says leadership is about helping to build and being part of a community, an “outfit.” 2 Kings Point midshipmen participated very successfully in a (mostly USNA) NOLS expedition in Wyoming in June-July. The first of many I hope.

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  2. Bob,
    The actions of your group say that leadership is fluid. When you were on the mountain, you thought you were leading the group. But when the admirals gave you advice, maybe you did not have the control you thought.
    The following is a metaphor that describes a special class of folks and is based on writings of Yvon Chouinard as he wrote about falconry.
    “When you are down on the rope and deciding which chick to take, (to train), there may be three birds in the nest, one cowering in the back, one in the center, but one is out in front reaching out to get you. You want the one in front”……. In the military world this just might describe the selection process for some of our best warriors.
    Further, he describes training and hunting of hawks and falcons. “…there is no love between you and the bird. These are wild, proud animals. The only thing they care about is killing and eating. It will only react to positive reinforcement. If it reaches out and claws the Sh** out of you, you just have to deal with it…….you think you are training the bird, but you’re not. The bird is training you. “ Many times over the years, I have found myself merely along for the ride and not exercising much control over subordinates.
    Sometime in their careers, the folks in your expedition in general, and the naval officers in particular, will come across or solicit these young hawk types. And they will have to know how to get them to work to a common goal.

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    • Interesting your analogy to ‘the young hawk type.’ This group was all former young hawks – now older, wiser, more mellow, and readier to compromise than when they were younger. BUt it reminds me of the analogy of leading ‘carnivores’ and ‘herbivores.’ Different skills required! Thanks Bob

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  3. Another fascinating read! When I was younger and so much fitter, I always thought it would be great to have an adventure like thisbut never seemed to have the time and now that I am older and have the time, I don’t have the fitness levels required, so many thanks for painting such a vivid picture of time away from “civilisation”. Loved the group photo – the llamas looked especially nice!
    I hope there are many more essays to come – I do look forward to reading them.

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  4. I think this would be an amazing experience to have. To have a new team come together and challenge themselves on a personal level but working towards a common goal in an amazing environment The trip sounds like a blast..

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  5. Bob,

    Sounds like you had a great group of people on this trip. Having been fortunate to do this trip the year before I would recommend it to anyone who needs a break from the grind of your day to day job. Leaders leading leaders has a tendency of bringing out some great banter and some ribbing as the team moves forward. An example of this is (do you know where the hell we are ? Um Wyoming) As a leader in my day to day life it was nice to have an experience with similar people and learn from them.

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