Patagonia Leadership Venture – Moving the Mountains

Under the starry starry Patagonian sky,

We opened our eyes.

We traveled in time; precious moments resided in our minds,

Rivers shimmered under the moon,

Sang a beautiful lullaby, telling the tales of the creative nature.

Calm, Free, Clear, Riveting,

That week, we walked a long way through roses and thorns.

We fought against the wind,

We cheered under the rainbow,

Crouched by the fireside, laughed with dirt on our face,

And chatted about past, present, and future……

During the past spring break, a group of us traveled to Patagonia in Chile and broke off into different teams to kick off the leadership venture. It was a transformational experience that helped me to uncover clarity and strength to live beyond limits and develop a profound understanding of leadership and teamwork. Behind the breathtaking photos were moments of battling against the danger of slippery cliffs, the fear of body exhaustion, and the discomfort of bad weather and no showers. We walked nearly 10 hours every day with backpacks, slept in leaky tents that were soaked in rain and wind, lost our way in the woods, and pushed our self-made raft in the freezing river. Despite the painful wounds on our knees, waists and shoulders, we managed to power through the day with painkillers and pure willpower. As the only team who summited and reached the destination on the third day, we encountered the worst winds. We held hands to use our bodyweight against the winds and hugged each other in front of a beautiful lagoon and glaciers that we had never seen before. This moment we celebrated as a team!

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, you need a team.” Our team was honored to have Rodrigo Jordan as our first-day guide. Rodrigo is the founder of Vertical and the first South American to reach the peak of Mt Everest. He shared with us his personal experience of leading an expedition team to summit K2, the second highest mountain in the world (more on the K2 case study: Rodrigo Jordan | Talks at Google). Facing uncertainty, adversity and limitations, how can a leader make the best decision for the team? When you are responsible for the lives of the team members, your understanding of responsibility and leadership is elevated. However, any decision the leader makes will certainly face certain degrees of criticism. The ability to explain your rationales to the team and balance authoritative, consultative, facilitative, and delegative decision-making styles is critical to the overall team performance. Leadership styles can be versatile instead of one-dimensional. You can choose to lead from the front, middle and/or back based on your personalities and the context of each situation. A true leader is willing to let go of his or her ego and be able to not only think big picture but also empower his or her team members. In a world that often celebrates individual success, it’s critical to shift the focus to celebrate the success of a functioning team.

During the Venture, each day we selected a leader of the day to lead the expedition. Putting theory into practice was extremely helpful for us to better understand our behaviors as leaders and followers. The daily “After Action Review” was a timely reflection to give and receive feedback for each team members. Pointed out by my executive coach Amy Gleklen and the McKinsey article (Link) on the leadership iceberg, some of our behaviors are deeply rooted in our belief and value systems. During our After Action Reviews, we discovered how our different beliefs, cultures and past experiences influenced our conscious and subconscious behaviors. For example, a person who is influenced mostly by an authoritative leadership style may believe that division of labor is the most effective way to perform a team-based assignment. When that person is in a leadership position, he is less likely to apply a consensus-driven approach. In the same vein, when that person is in a following position, he is more likely to give the authority to the expert in the room and less likely to speak up or question the authority. Choosing the default behaviors and thinking patterns is easy and comfortable. Sometimes realizing your truth and challenging your old mental models or worldviews is painful, scary, and lonely. However, if you regard these old mental models as tools that facilitate deeper thinking instead of characteristics that define your identity, you will be more open-minded to listen to opposing views and improve your mental models. The experience reminded me of Ray Dalio’s book Principle on the improvement loop and the trust in radical truth and open-mindedness. Pain + Reflection = Progress. Awareness is just the first step in psychology.

Source: Ray Dalio, Principle

I want to thank my incredible and motivational team Optimist Prime, venture follows, guides from and many others. We came from very diverse backgrounds. Our differences and similarities helped us to reflect deeper on our journey of self-discovery. I learned the military style self-discipline, accountability, courage, and perseverance. I learned from the best role models who lead with actions on how to shift the focus to boost morale during tough times and put others first even if their own body was in pain. Thanks for cheering me up with humor and fables. Finishing the Venture was a defining moment for me to realize that I can be stronger than my body limits. As Sheryl Sandberg said in her Berkeley Commencement Talk, resilience is truly like a muscle, and it can be built up.

Throughout the venture, most expedition tasks were goal-oriented and under time pressure. We did not have enough time to appreciate the surroundings and connect the experience with our bodies, minds and souls. On the last day I led the team to meditate on the raft we built. On both sides of the river were undulating hills and glaciers. Its beauty brought the story of the earth. Every one of us from all around the world came together with a unique story. Seeing the peak that we had reached from afar reminded us of the rush of the breath when we were summiting. In real life, we also have mountains to climb, but human beings are miracle creatures. We only need to take a short break to enjoy the sceneries along the road and the long way we have passed, and then we can get ready again to climb the next mountain and overcome one challenge after another. This moment, we started to understand the true meaning of “Summiting”.