Go hard or go home

What gives a leader the edge? A unique course that drops ex­ec­u­tives in the mid­dle of the out­back prom­ises to send them home with an en­tirely new out­look. Kirsten Gal­liott signed up.

Qantas - - QBUSINESS. -

This is the mo­ment when I start to panic. Mid­night is clos­ing in and I’m lost in the mid­dle of a cave in the re­mote Kim­ber­ley re­gion of Western Aus­tralia. Twelve peo­ple are count­ing on me to find a way out but the cathe­dral-like sand­stone walls around us give no hint as to where we are – or where we should be. As min­utes tick by and the night air seems to drop an­other cou­ple of de­grees, I stop to fo­cus on what I know to be true: there is an exit some­where and to get to it, we will have to swim through icy wa­ter, our packs on our backs. I look at my watch – we’ve been in here for two hours – then turn to my com­pan­ions. “Right,” I say, as con­fi­dently as I can. “This is what we’re go­ing to do.”

This is not a rou­tine de­ci­sion but, then again, this is not your av­er­age lead­er­ship course. The Kim­ber­ley Lead­er­ship Ad­ven­ture, run by Perth busi­ness Out­back Ini­tia­tives (out­backin.com.au), is a 10-day ex­pe­ri­en­tial course de­signed so par­tic­i­pants un­der­stand their lead­er­ship style and learn how to rad­i­cally im­prove it. Founded by for­mer spe­cial forces squadron com­man­der Colin Hendrie in 1994, the com­pany fo­cuses on “per­for­mance un­der pres­sure”. That means plac­ing peo­ple in sit­u­a­tions be­yond their ev­ery­day – be that camp­ing, ab­seil­ing or cav­ing – test­ing their lead­er­ship and giv­ing them im­me­di­ate, au­then­tic feed­back.

The bonus is the back­drop. The Kim­ber­ley is a truly re­mark­able re­gion in the coun­try’s far north-west that seems to leach Aus­tralia out of its very soil. The tra­di­tional own­ers, the Gooniyandi peo­ple, have in­vited us to share their land, their sto­ries and the ex­tra­or­di­nary colours around them. The moun­tain ranges glow burnt or­ange in the late af­ter­noon. The spinifex draws me close with its pretty straw colour then be­trays me by stab­bing me with its blades. There are bootie-pink sun­sets, black cliffs drip­ping am­ber and rus­set ter­mite mounds re­sem­bling go­ril­las crouch­ing in the sun, some the size of trees.

De­spite the var­ied sched­ule and ex­cit­ing scenery, this is a dif­fi­cult story to write. The power of the pro­gram is in its sur­prise el­e­ment so when you sign up, you agree to em­brace the un­known. Par­tic­i­pants are asked to con­fide lit­tle about the ex­pe­ri­ence to any­one con­sid­er­ing go­ing on the course. “We want to put peo­ple out­side their com­fort zone,” ex­plains Out­back Ini­tia­tives’ man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, Sh­eryll Fisher. “If we gave you all the in­for­ma­tion, it would be too easy.”

So here’s what I can tell you. This is not a tra­di­tional off­site where you sit in front of

a white­board for most of the day and re­tire to the re­sort’s restau­rant for din­ner and drinks at night. For a start, you’ll be camp­ing. The group of strangers you’re as­signed to – 13 peo­ple signed up for this course and were di­vided into two teams – will be re­spon­si­ble for buy­ing and pre­par­ing all the food on a lim­ited bud­get. And you’ll be hand­ing over your phone be­cause there’s no con­tact with the out­side world – not even your fam­ily – for the du­ra­tion of the course.

“For a lot of peo­ple, it’s the first time in their life that they are able to fo­cus on one thing: their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional growth,” says Fisher, who now owns the com­pany and works with the Sin­ga­pore Po­lice Force reg­u­larly, train­ing the Gurkha Con­tin­gent. “You need space to be able to con­cen­trate on that very im­por­tant thing. So many peo­ple don’t have the chance to look at their life and their val­ues.”

The 10-day course is the most ex­treme – the com­pany also runs shorter cour­ses, as well as pro­grams for in­tro­verted lead­ers and women-only groups – but it at­tracts ev­ery­one from rugged, out­doorsy types to novice campers (guilty as charged). It helps to be rea­son­ably fit but the chal­lenges are men­tal as much as phys­i­cal.

I can’t know it at the be­gin­ning but by day 10, I will form some sur­pris­ingly in­tense bonds with the other mem­bers of my team. Most peo­ple who do this pro­gram are in their 40s or 50s and in se­nior lead­er­ship po­si­tions across a range of fields. Their rea­sons for do­ing the course are var­ied. One woman in my group wants to find the “miss­ing pieces”. “I feel re­ally stuck in my lead­er­ship,” she says. “I’m also lack­ing con­fi­dence so I need to push my­self.” One man has just moved to Aus­tralia and wants to steer his ca­reer in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. An­other woman is toss­ing up be­tween ex­ec­u­tive life and start­ing her own busi­ness.

“I was un­cer­tain what this course would de­liver and that’s why I jumped in head­first,” says one of my team­mates. “Un­cer­tainty can be a great teacher. White walls, de­signer fur­ni­ture and fruit plat­ters for morn­ing tea don’t stretch me. This pro­gram ap­pealed be­cause I knew I’d be in a re­mote place and stretched in a real way.”

Be­fore the course be­gins, we all do a DiSC pro­file, which is a be­havioural as­sess­ment tool that tests dom­i­nance and in­flu­ence and iden­ti­fies strengths and weak­nesses. I have a half-hour ses­sion with my coach, Zoë Routh (zo­er­outh.com), in prepa­ra­tion for the course and, on my re­turn, a one-hour fol­low-up to re­flect on what I’ve learnt and how I can ap­ply it in the real world.

The pro­gram is di­vided into three sec­tions: Chaos, Skill-Build­ing and Con­sol­i­da­tion. The Chaos el­e­ment is the most con­fronting. “When things are go­ing well, most lead­ers can keep on top of ev­ery­thing that’s im­por­tant, whether that’s tasks, peo­ple or pro­cesses,” says fa­cil­i­ta­tor Ken East­wood, who stays with my group for the du­ra­tion of the trip. “But when we’re un­der pres­sure, most of us re­vert to core be­hav­iours. For ex­am­ple, some peo­ple will freeze and not be able to make a de­ci­sion. Some peo­ple be­come so task-fo­cused that they for­get to care about oth­ers. This process draws out those core be­hav­iours and helps peo­ple as­cer­tain what they need to im­prove on for the fu­ture.”

East­wood briefs the day’s leader on each ex­er­cise then ob­serves them through­out the process. After­wards, he runs a de­brief­ing ses­sion in which the en­tire team is re­quired to give a warts-and-all as­sess­ment of what the leader did well and where he or she fell short. For some, it might be the first time in their life they’ve been given bru­tally hon­est feed­back in the mo­ment.

“Giv­ing un­pleas­ant feed­back can be stress­ful in the cor­po­rate world,” says one of the par­tic­i­pants. “But here it was de­liv­ered by peo­ple whose only in­ter­est was to im­prove

their own lead­er­ship and see me im­prove mine. The feed­back was timely, spe­cific, fo­cused on be­hav­iours, not per­son­al­ity, and given in a safe en­vi­ron­ment.”

“I call this the gap anal­y­sis course,” says Fisher, “be­cause peo­ple see them­selves one way and then they get feed­back that can be quite dif­fer­ent to what they thought. But it’s con­sid­ered feed­back that makes you think, ‘Wow, okay.’”

Of course, get­ting feed­back in the mo­ment when you’re tired and pos­si­bly hun­gry can be chal­leng­ing, un­com­fort­able and, for some, emo­tional. “This is not Sur­vivor,” quips Fisher. “No-one gets voted off the is­land.”

Still, it’s not a bad anal­ogy. At times it does feel like a re­al­ity tele­vi­sion show, with­out the cam­eras. Thank­fully, the par­tic­i­pants are far less Machi­avel­lian. “Spend­ing this amount of time to­gether in a re­mote lo­ca­tion while un­der a bit of pres­sure leaves you with nowhere to hide,” says one of the men in my group. “The sim­ple fact was that if we didn’t work to­gether, the team would fail and we would get very hun­gry, very tired and su­perdys func­tional as time went on. We brought out the best in one an­other.”

For my part, I got us out of the cave in about four hours (some teams strug­gle for eight). See­ing that exit – such sweet re­lief! – is a mem­ory that will stay with me for­ever.

But it was the next chal­lenge that will con­tinue to in­form my lead­er­ship. I can’t tell you about it be­yond the fact that I ab­so­lutely, ab­jectly failed. It was a disas­ter and, quite frankly, con­fronting (I don’t like fail­ing!). East­wood de­lib­er­ately se­lected that chal­lenge for me, know­ing I would strug­gle and then learn some­thing im­por­tant about my­self. He was right.

It’s what I do with that in­for­ma­tion that will make the dif­fer­ence in my ca­reer. How do I take that fail­ure and turn it into some­thing pos­i­tive?

And so I some­times find my­self at my desk late at night, wrestling with a prob­lem. I’m in the mid­dle of Syd­ney but I choose to let my mind wan­der to the red soil of the Kim­ber­ley, to see the happy faces of my team­mates and to think about what I’ve learnt – and what they taught me.

And then I get crack­ing.

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