The Gift of Uncertainty

I'm reading a book by Robert Kull (Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes).  He writes, "Conceptual knowledge is often used to shield the mind from the unsettling experience of profound uncertainty; the uncertainty engendered by direct engagement with the world.  But instead of building a self-enclosing fortress of knowledge, the intellect can be used to expand the space of awareness and enrich the experience of living."

I recently interviewed Tomas Grifferos, Executive Director of Fundacion Vertical in Santiago, Chile.  Grifferos, a fitness educator, helped train Rodrigo Jordan, PhD, and his team of Chilean climbers for their successful ascent of Mt. Everest in 1992.  Once back in Santiago, Jordan founded VERTICAL S.A., and Grifferos was its first employee.  The VERTICAL team discovered that they could leverage the principle of uncertainty in their outdoor leadership development programs and achieve dramatic effects.  "As a person in nature," Grifferos said, "you have something that makes you want to move, and what makes you want to move is uncertainty, not knowing the outcome.  Uncertainty levels out the physical differences in people, big or small, fast or slow.  You don't know what is going to happen.  That means they must work together."

So profound, yet so simple.

The Art of Focusing

Fernando (Feña) Yañez, a guide with Vertical (@verticalchile), said something really important to me while we were hiking on Isla Navarino, an island just south of Tierra del Fuego.  He said, "This is the time I can let daily issues and troubles slip away.  It's the time I can focus on just one thing - what I'm doing right now." 

He's right.  We get so caught up in the flood of information and to-do lists in our lives.  Walking through the Teeth of Navarino, I felt the power of what he said.  It was enough to focus on where I placed my feet, where I placed my hands on the rock.  To fully appreciate the moment that encompassed me as I passed through this wild and untamed place.  Nothing else mattered.

A rare moment.

Into the "Teeth of Navarino"

I recently completed an extraordinary trek with a group of Wharton MBAs and world-class guides from the Vertical guide agency (based in Santiago).  The trek took place on Isla Navarino, a rarely visited island that lies just south of Tierra del Fuego.  It's the land closest to the Antarctic continent.

Traveling through some really tough terrain that included long and difficult scree slopes, and frequently ascending and descending narrow rocky steps and cliffs (often with icy water running down them), I was amazed at the ability of the group to keep their high spirits intact despite the challenges we faced.  Rain, hail, snow, sunshine, howling wind - all were mixed together at any moment.  Well, as they say, it is Patagonia.

This trip made me think about what it takes to be a good follower.  The MBAs were responsible for route-finding for their small teams, and as an "observer" on the trip I had to watch and wait as they made their measurements and planned their routes through the wilderness.  I think that the willingness to follow others during such an experience requires perseverance (the days are long and challenging), a measure of courage (the traverses and rock steps can test the strongest will), and faith (that others will lead you in the right direction).  Faith that, as trust built over the experience, eventually became confidence (as British sociologist Anthony Giddens has suggested).  Other participants noted two other important qualities of followers in such challenging situations -- humor (to dispel gloom or fear), and humility (one quickly realizes how small and insignificant one is in such a wild landscape) .

 Expeditions are indeed a rare opportunity to step back from external pressures and experience life and nature in all its majesty -- in the wild, no beaten paths, no destination other than the one you choose to take.  One of the MBA venture fellows, Lorenz Kazda, told me how much this expedition meant to him: "The lessons from this experience are imprinted in your mind."

Mindful Leadership

Jeff Klein, Executive Director of the Wharton Leadership Program, advises each entering class of MBAs to seek out and learn from stretch experiences on their path to developing as leaders.  Out of the thousands of fleeting experiences one has every day, he says, some are truly poignant and warrant serious, focused attention as learning opportunities.  The importance of mindfully attending to those experiences is generating new interest among leadership educators as research expands and as educational programs teach participants how to build skills in mindfulness.

Leadership at the Sharp End of the Rope

Tie into the end of the rope, step off the ledge, and you are committed to the climb. All of your senses suddenly come into focus. The wind is louder in your ears, the rock rougher beneath your fingers, the smell of your own sweat sharper in your nostrils. Adrenaline flows, and you tingle with the thrill of meeting nature’s wildest challenges. You have voluntarily entered the realm of high adventure.

Believing is Seeing: A Mountaineer Talks to Business About Overcoming Adversity

As if climbing Mt. Everest in 2001 was not achievement enough, blind climber Erik Weihenmayer has now completed his bid to climb the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on each continent. Speaking to an audience of financial specialists at Merrill Lynch in Princeton, NJ, he recounted his struggles to overcome adversity, suggesting “everyone can lead – leadership is contagious.”