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Reframing Leadership Perspectives: Big 5 Wilderness vs. The Boardroom

Updated: May 4, 2023

Author: Lutz Otto


In leadership teams we often see the desire to deliver performance steered on a very calculated and linear level. It goes without saying that that many aspects of effective management are necessarily linear, however it is as important to observe that when we step back and take a more holistic view both of the business, and the people who make up it's heart, we find that this approach can be limiting, and suffocating, for both teams and leaders.


To practically illustrate this observation, my thoughts drift between:

  • a team intervention facilitated in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park.

  • an all day session, combining coaching and mentorship, with a newly appointed director.


Walking In Big Game Territory And Facing The Elephant In The Room


In the first instance, we were deeply immersed in a leadership process that required a different approach to [1] firstly to re-establish a trust based connection in the team, and [2] secondly to shift the energy of the business from a space of confident complacency, to a space where creativity and new ideas flowed more readily.


Things were "OK" within the team, but with time and busy roles, it felt as if they had unintentionally drifted from the values, culture and energy, that had brought the business to where it was. When the Managing Director, a conscious and wise man, briefed us on the assignment he likened it to his first marriage that had started with great promise, and how he then over time, and through lack of effort, lost connection with the women he had then loved.



We were out walking in an area home to Africa's lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard, and it was hot. I started observing a change in the body language of the group - Our movement had become one of monotonous momentum. The combination of the team growing confidence in the environment, and their beginning to understand the process, allowed them to shift into a comfortable rhythm. Later that day we discussed the benefits, including effectiveness and efficiency, as well as the disadvantages, of reaching team or individual operating states such as these.


The bush seemed to have become devoid of life, and the constant humming of the cicadas seemed to gently lull the group from a place of high initial situational awareness to falling into a non-present trance like walk.


Then, VERY SUDDENLY, the rhythm, and the resultant energy changed. An elephant cow with a young calf walked through the vegetation. Immediately, everyone including the cow were uncomfortable and on high alert. To fully comprehend the size of an elephant, one needs to be on foot – The situation instantly gave new meaning to the phrase “the elephant in the room”.


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That which had just unfolded was not expected and subsequently we heard, “Nothing was there, where did she come from", "Everything looked good, we did not expect this", "We were in control”.


Sound a little familiar?


Through decades of wilderness experience, we knew to give the agitated elephant cow the space she needed. Through this she saw our intention was not to do her harm, and in what was seconds, but felt like an eternity, the situation diffused. She relaxed, and the two elephants melted into the bush as suddenly as they had appeared.


Once our group had taken the time to psychologically land the excitement of the encounter, we sat down to start unpacking what had unfolded. Opportunities like these offer an incredible "reflection window" that can result in some deep insights. In facilitated psychodynamic discussion:


  • One of the executives made the observation that “We are too close to the detail of that which we are busy with, and are not seeing the full picture. Things are not always what we think and that has a consequence”.


  • Another drew a correlation between the different behaviors he observed in the elephant and in his team “When we don’t give our team members space to think beyond that which we have been doing, they cannot produce their best”. He noted that this outcome negatively impacted his motivation and his creativity.


  • A third executive noted that although she had always been focused, she was starting to lose her motivation. She said that she had always assumed that her team would also be excited about her introduction of new models and ideas, but instead the more she added, the more they seemed to be shutting down. She thoughtfully observed that perhaps she should let go of her need for control and the projection of her mindset, and afford the team some creative thinking space.


  • We explored why motivation differs between people within the same team, and this even led to our touching on the mind and body connection, and the difference between dopamine, and our "here and now" chemicals oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.


  • This led to the point that none of the group could remember the last time they engaged in an honest check-in with their teams. Beyond a casual "how are you doing" without expecting a real answer, we had no idea how they were doing or feeling, what excited them, nor what was happening in their day-to-day lives.


When we looked at our watch again, it was well over two hours later. The Managing Director sat quietly in observation through this time, and at the end of the process, just before we started walking back to camp, he humbly thanked the team for what had just unfolded.


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Down the piste these vulnerable observations opened a discussion, and resulted in a set of actions, that sustainably changed the behavior's of the executive team, and consequently the way in which they led their business. Some might argue that this is obvious, yes it might be, but so is maintaining connection in marriage with a loved one - Unless we are conscious of its slow creep, complacency is a human characteristic, that arises in the best of us.


Over the years I have amassed supportive research as to why nature and wilderness based work, just works. The most often cited study is that undertaken by Atchley RA, Strayer DL and Atchley P, in 2012, were they scientifically recorded a 50% improvement in creative problem solving in a group that spent 4 days on a wilderness trip. This alone should have every team leader thinking about getting their team out of the office and into wild places.


Professor Adam Grant, recognized as one of the 10 most influential global management thinkers, last year [2022] forecasted that more organizations will send teams on wilderness retreats to connect, form culture and develop skills. He believes that the sustained outcomes of these process, in these environments, are materially better. Having run workshops and transformational work in wild places for near two decades, first whilst in employed in corporate and subsequently in Spirited Adventures, I have come to understand the reasons that we never achieve the same quality, nor depth of outcome, when sitting in a boardroom. I often draw on these evidence based studies, especially when engaged in ROI conversations, to illustrate the power of nature based processes - Saying this I know in my heart, and from experience, that once the team gets out there, that they will no longer require convincing.


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Conscious Leadership: The Acceptance That Nothing Happens In Isolation


In the second instance, I was in a full days coaching and mentorship session with a newly appointed sales director. He was experienced, and determined to make a difference in the organization. For him to achieve success in his new role, he would need to consolidate his existing skills, develop new capability and become comfortable in leading people in areas he had not managed before.


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Following a brief induction period, he spent time engaging with his immediate team, a number of stakeholders through the business and some customers. He read, and re-read, the existing strategies. Subsequent this, to set the foundation for continued growth, he set a full day aside to with his managerial team to understand the “why” of the team and the “why” of their existing strategies. His objective was to use this as a starting point to either build on the existing strategy, leave it as it is, or create a new strategy aligned to the overarching business objectives - He went into the meeting without a preference.


As we sat, he narrated that although he entered the meeting excited, his mood quickly changed. Even though he had given his management team an agenda two weeks prior the offsite meeting [knowing that forced brainstorms never produce the best ideas], it felt as if he was been told what the team thought he needed to hear. He was expecting to engage in robust and constructive discussion, but instead he felt frustrated in the superficial interaction.


Rather than immediately tackle the challenge at hand, I asked him to talk a little about himself. He explained the journey of his career. We explored his behavior in certain situations - Whether the responses were positive, neutral or negative, and how he subsequently felt. We touched on his feeling about his predecessor’s work. We spoke about the dual expectations, and likely perceptions, of his superiors and subordinates. We explored how we often expect a clean slate within our team member’s hearts and minds when we start something new - Whereas each of our minds, consciously and unconsciously, develops differently not only based on our genetic make-up but our unique life story. We spoke about his family life, how he grew up and what he enjoyed outside of the work context. Absolutely nothing we do in our lives happens in isolation, which is the reason why systemic thinking deeply underpins our work.


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Why Changing Systems Is Difficult. Illustration and Thinking Credit: Systems Innovation

Now we returned to his challenge.


We quickly realized that he had projected his own understanding, emotional and readiness condition onto the team. In his desire to deliver performance, he had entered the process with a focused intensity that did not give his team the space to engage their hearts, minds and hands. Further this, particularly in the context of his predecessor, he had not yet built enough psychological safety within the team.


With a deeper perspective, and a helicopter view, he courageously looked at himself, and his team, with "new eyes". This last year they delivered new records for the third year running. His consistent authentic behavior [with superiors and sub-ordinates], delegation of ownership and responsibility, situational awareness, and emotional intelligence, saw him become an incredible leader.


Bring It All Together


How often have we contributed or behaved, in a similar way? How often have we, positively or negatively, impacted the perspectives of our current or past employees?


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Although these two challenges were different, they both required the re-framing of information, and shifting our behaviors.


Our management models, processes, performance incentives and linear thinking, provide an important platform to work from. Equally so, especially when applied without thinking of the whole [system], their over zealous application silences creativity and suffocates performance. This consequently leaves leaders feeling frustrated, and unintentionally puts the brakes on the performance we wish to achieve.


Effective and efficient leadership requires us to find ways to create new, or evolved thinking, that subsequently results in positively evolved behavioral patterns. Beyond the supportive implementation of strategy, achieving sustainable performance requires a holistic approach that draws on leadership experience, an appreciation of context, conscious decision making, systemic thinking [versus linear], and humanizing people [yes warts and all]. As I craft this, I think how much my view has either evolved, or changed with time, experience and maturity, since graduating from business school some thirty years ago.


Food for thought?



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