I recently spent a week in the Wind River Mountains with a group of 2%ers. I joined 14 successful executives who chose to get out of their comfort zones to join a group of people they mostly didn’t know, to hike, camp, cook, collaborate, and learn to trust each other for a week with the National Outdoor Leadership School’s (NOLS) Executive Leadership Expedition. A number of these executives had never been backpacking before, and for many who had, it had been years. Each of them was looking for something new, challenging, and stimulating. Each was looking to learn and grow.
We were a motley, but impressive crew – fifteen of us, nearly all in our 50s, eleven men and four women, with professional backgrounds ranging from a dentist, to a university professor, to a US Navy Admiral, to small business owners, to several CEOs, to Vice Presidents and other senior executives with a wide array of leadership and life experience. We also had seven llamas who carried much of our weight, keeping individual pack weights in the 20-30 lbs range.
I was the junior instructor behind Rick Rochelle, our expedition leader with 28 years of experience leading NOLS courses on five continents, and Lynn Petzold, with 22 years leading NOLS courses all over North and South America. We “instructors” were part of the team, and were responsible for teaching camping and navigation skills, for helping to manage risk, and for making sure that NOLS and Forest Service policies were followed.
People ask me, “So, what did you do out there for a week?” “What” we did was not the main point. Really.
Unlike most NOLS expeditions, there was almost no teaching beyond basic camping, backpacking and hiking skills. The “What” was simple: We broke up into four small groups, hiked, cooked and tented together, and took care of each other, our llamas, our gear, and the environment. We had one layover day, which gave some of us an opportunity to hike up a nearby peak, or to swim in the cold lake, or to simply take it easy with unstructured time. Several in our group caught enough trout to make a great dinner that night for all of us.
“Out there”- the setting for this expedition – is spectacular and primal. The southern Wind River Range in western Wyoming was our “classroom.” As one in our group said, the Stough Creek basin where we spent much of the expedition, is like Yosemite Valley, with sheer granite walls thousands of feet high, but without all the people. No roads or mechanized vehicles are allowed in the wilderness of the Wind River Range. We camped near or above the tree line, among the mountains, clear streams and lakes. Moose grazed near two of our campsites.
If “What” we did was not the main point, what was? I’ll refer to Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” – three consecutive circles, with “Why” in the middle. The “Why” was to live fully, with courage, to become better, wiser, more fulfilled leaders within the numerous contexts in which we serve and lead. The “How” was to get out of our comfort zones, work together with others, share challenge, choose to trust and depend on others in a difficult but spectacular environment. The work we had to accomplish together, and the spectacular setting and connection to Nature – opened the door to creating trust. We practiced great “expeditionary behavior” – the jewel-in-the-crown of NOLS leadership. Expeditionary behavior demands that each of us take care of ourselves, and fulfill our responsibilities as best we can, that we do our share and more – to ensure that the team succeeds. “What” we did was driven by our “Why” and “How.”
One of our expedition members, Rob Nielsen, CEO of All American Leadership, remarked that he was amazed at how quickly we built trust within our group. He works with corporations that strive for months and years to achieve the level of trust we developed in a week.
Each of us was given 15 minutes to share our personal “Leadership Journey.” What were the key experiences that made us into the person and leader we have become? What is truly important to us? Just 15 minutes. These personal stories became a centerpiece of our expedition.
Though not required, many of us shared things we had only shared with those who really, really, REALLY know us – and in a few cases, things that even those few don’t know. Again, we chose to trust each other. AND we agreed that: “What is said in the Winds, stays in the Winds.”
We also laughed a lot. One tent group laughed together so long into the night that the rest of us threatened to climb into their (tight) 4-person tent and join in the fun, if they didn’t calm down and let us sleep!
Every expedition has its defining humorous anecdote – last year’s had to do with a porcupine. This year, Rick Rochelle turned to check on llama Arapahoe and suddenly, unexpectedly, and seemingly without provocation, got spit on, full force right into his face, from six inches away! I didn’t see it happen, but I did see Rick momentarily lose his famous equanimity and splash Arapahoe with some of the water he was using to clean the chewed-up grass from under his eyelids! Then, Rick spit back! Arapahoe couldn’t have cared less. I’ve never seen a llama spit at a camper – or vice-versa. Rick assured us – it is NOT pleasant!
This was my fourth Executive Leadership Expedition. This expedition, and this group of people, has renewed my energy and enthusiasm for this project. The project is simply this: To create an opportunity for middle-aged executive 2%ers to experience the challenges and the rewards of a NOLS expedition, tailored to meet their unique circumstances, backgrounds and time limitations, in the spectacular setting of the Wind River Range. A number of these 2%ers came primarily for an outdoor adventure, or to just get away from the grind – and that was fine. As we quietly sat in the bus, heading back into the front country, back into the vortex of emails, cell phones, meetings, and our many other responsibilities as leaders in our communities, all realized that we had gotten so much more than a backpacking adventure out of this intense, shared experience, with great people, in a breathtaking setting. I will be back….
Anyone who may be interested in finding out more about this expedition for next year or in the future, click here and/or shoot me an email and I’ll put you on distro for information as it develops.