Survival boot camp puts leaders to the test

A group of six corporate leaders joined a week-long outdoor survival boot camp. With business becoming a more competitive battleground, survival of the fittest is a pressing concept. When meeting their coach in an isolated section of the Italian Alps, they knew they were in for an experience that was sure to stretch each and every one of them. While viewing the rugged terrain for the first time, it was obvious some were silently lamenting “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

Commencing the journey as strangers, they quickly became a close-knit community, one that demonstrated support and respect, along with greater mutual understanding and trust in each other. As the successful week came to an end with no casualties, one particular team member was unanimously voted the most appropriate to create and deliver the “thank you” speech to the coach. What convinced the team of this person’s capability to honour the virtues of the coach on behalf of the group? Was this a vote of confidence in this person’s leadership, and if so, what do others look for in a true leader?


Each day involved 30 kilometres of trekking in remote and tunnelled areas to reach the next camp. That was the first challenge bringing boredom and routine into the lives of six gentlemen who normally seek change. This would often result in general chit-chatting and sharing of experiences, helping them to pass the time and take focus away from any aches and pains. Insights and experiences were shared, some on the amusing side, some more poignant, yet each person found themself contributing at some point. There was no place for domination in the mountains.

Relevance to corporate leadership People need to know there’s a place for them in the workplace; they need to feel welcomed and respected. This should be a place where they can air their opinions, share their experiences and face diverse responses. Gone are the days where leaders are the only ones with expertise.

2. Relationship-based outcomes

Outdoor team challenges are geared around goals and activities, results and solutions. On a daily basis the team took part in challenges at different intervals along the trek. The challenges were designed to only get results if the guys relied on each other and used each other’s strengths. These outcomes had trust at their core.

Relevance to corporate leadership. Positive and healthy relationships are essential to leadership success. This does not mean being surrounded by clones, rather that no matter who you work with, desired results won’t happen without the magic ingredient that binds us all together. Some people are natural binding agents and others may need to practice this skill; yet without it, undesired consequences will exist. When conflict strikes, leaders work with it, aiming to clear the corporate space of its grip.

Many of the trekkers had unique mental, emotional and even physical capabilities well beyond the average Joe – after all, they had been hand-picked for this venture. Regardless, they never talked about their talents; they simply pulled these traits out of an invisible bag when required. Great teams seek togetherness and commonality, often achieved through the virtue of humility, which maintains a focus on core purpose.

Leaders are only leaders if others believe they are. In the workplace what matters most is the visible actions of a leader, not how he talks about them.

4. Willingness to give it a go

Survival camps exist as the unknown has a habit of striking when it’s least expected. A ravine deeper than anticipated, a blizzard passing through just as the fire is lit, a rusted lock jams on a dilapidated shelter, a knee that gives in. A cohesive team will always find solutions, drawing upon individuals’ strengths.

Resilience is the one trait that allows true leaders to recognise one “push down” doesn’t mean “stay down”. Just as a balloon instantly rebounds from a finger’s pressure, so too does a resilient leader from an unexpected occurrence.

Debbie Nicol, managing director of the Dubai-based business en motion, is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture


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