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Surviving and Thriving – In the Wyoming Wilderness and Beyond

By John Jarvis
NOLS Graduate, ELLE, 2015 | Hughes Marino Senior Vice President

This past Monday morning I didn’t go into work. Instead, I unzipped my tent and stepped out into unfamiliar surroundings in the upper Roaring Fork in the Popo Agie Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. It was cold and raining as I lit the WhisperLite stove to boil water to start the day.

I was on a course called Executive Leadership Expedition, or ELLE. The course has been developed by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and championed by Bob Schoultz, NOLS Instructor, Navy Seal and leadership guru. Whereas NOLS is known for its rigorous outdoor expedition programs for young adults in their teens and twenties, this program is designed for executives, and our group of twelve professionals ranged in age from 37 to 57. Some had wilderness experience; a few had never spent a night in a tent.

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We traveled with llamas, which was interesting, a blessing and a curse. They carry some of the pack weight, which is great, and they need to be cared for and coaxed up and over very technical terrain. The end result? It was a profound experience.

We did, in fact, survive and thrive over the course of the week, and, what’s more, we bonded with one another (and with the llamas) in surprising and powerful ways. We learned about ourselves as leaders in a context that almost ensures we will never forget. Most importantly, we learned lessons that we will bring home and use in transforming our everyday lives.

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Leadership is a topic so widely discussed, promoted and debated that we are at risk of becoming almost numb to it. Organizations spend thousands of dollars sending their teams to prestigious programs that delve into the topic, studying behaviors and attempting to create exercises and scenarios that replicate the stress and dynamics of the workplace setting. Many of these programs are excellent at distilling the core elements of effective leadership and successful leaders, and at creating a contrived environment where executives can experience introspection and growth.

What these programs work so hard to create is a context of urgency, uncertainty and adversity; this domain where a leader’s strengths emerge and weaknesses are exposed. The Wind River Range, and for that matter all remote wilderness settings, exude urgency, uncertainty and adversity. This has been the stuff of nature since the beginning of time, and it is the ideal learning laboratory for leadership and growth. This is what NOLS Founder, Paul Petzoldt, understood, and this is the foundation of all NOLS programs. Exit the classroom, lose the lecture and enter the wild under the competent care of a NOLS Instructor. Circumstances will unfold naturally, and the instructors can introduce concepts in response to events as they occur.

Just one example – Space Shuttle Commander Jeff Ashby chose a 9-day NOLS Wilderness course in the slot canyons of Utah to expose his team to uncertainty and adversity, and to develop the team behavior that would allow them to excel and thrive during their 11-day mission to the international space station.

Here are five of the lessons I learned over the course of our week in the wilderness:

1. Adversity and uncertainty are unavoidable. Learn to face them and deal with them in a calm manner in order to thrive, both in the wilderness and in the workplace.

2. A properly executed debrief is one of the most powerful tools available to any team, whether you are in a tent, a tarp or an office tower.

3. The durable fabric that holds a high performing team together through challenge and struggle is something called “Expedition Behavior.” Stepping up, helping out, going first, lending your particular strength and effort for the good of the team. We do this not for recognition or reward, but for the good of the all, because we can, and because it is our turn.

4. We have a choice every day about how we want to show up. Thrown together with 14 strangers on a challenging journey of endurance and discovery, I had a choice about who I wanted to be. Each team member was a blank slate of potential, with the opportunity to be brave, bold, trusting, empathetic, fearless, and helpful. And the truth is, we all have this choice every day. Who do you want to be today?

5. Vulnerability builds trust, and trust is the foundation of quality relationships and strong teams. Over the course of our adventure, each person was given an opportunity to tell their “Leadership Journey,” their personal narrative about how they had arrived at this place and time. Following the lead of our remarkable course instructors Rick Rochelle and Lynn Petzold, each of us elected to trust the group and share our most honest, authentic, troubling and miraculous stories. Our collective willingness to be vulnerable built a powerful sense of camaraderie and trust that fueled our success over the difficult terrain and also our joy and laughter at each exhausted end of day.

We are all capable of much more than we realize. Our team spent a challenging and wonderful week in technical terrain, on the shores of high mountain lakes surrounded by cathedral rock faces a thousand feet above and all around us, at times echoing the lightning and thunder that drove us into safety positions until the storms had passed. We endured creek crossings, wet feet, cold hands, injuries, rain and wind. There were times when we had no idea where we were, but we were never really lost.

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In the words of NOLS Instructor Morgan Hite, we must prioritize our “Mental Hygiene,” taking care of our minds in the same way we take care of our bodies. In this age of ubiquitous technology, we must unplug in order to recharge, and in a return to primal wilderness, we can learn the lessons of leadership that Nature has been teaching since the beginning of time.

John Jarvis is a senior vice president of Hughes Marino, an award-winning California commercial real estate company specializing in tenant representation and building purchases with offices in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Contact John at 1-844-NO-CONFLICT or john@hughesmarino.com to learn more.



  • Very nice article John!
    I’m really missing the mountains right now.

    Good times!

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