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Sarah Johnson 2018-8-30

An Alaskan adventure for a brave group of Western Union leaders

By Chris Dieckmann, Eric Dieffenbach, Jody Myers, and Tristan van der Vijver

Webster’s dictionary defines “crucible” as “a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development.”  For four of our Compliance leaders, participating in the Self-Reliant Leadership’s Alaska Crucible fully lived up to the definition.  In late July, Chris Dieckmann, Eric Dieffenbach, Jody Myers and Tristan van der Vijver joined one other executive and seven veterans from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army and Special Forces on a guided, five-day, four-night backpacking trip to the Mendenhall Glacier and Mt. McGinnis near Juneau, Alaska.  Here is their story.

None of us had any significant previous experience in the outdoors, so simply signing up for the trip reflected an act of courage and an appetite for adventure.  All of us prepared for months in advance, and - while we were all excited - each of us arrived in Alaska with a level of anxiety.  Were we physically and emotionally prepared to carry a 40 – 50-pound pack (clothes, food, ropes, tents, ice axes, etc.) over difficult terrain for five days, sleeping on a 1,000-foot deep block of ice?  Did we have the right gear, and would we be able to use it competently?  How would the group dynamics play out?  What would we learn and take back to our work and our lives more generally?

The natural environment in Alaska is breathtaking and teeming with wildlife.  The area around Juneau is a rainforest, and in addition to the rich sea life, bald eagles, ravens, bears, wolves, wolverines, mountain goats, and porcupines are common in the mountains.  The scale of the landscape reinforces how small each of us is, and – in comparison to our normal urban and suburban environments - the balance between humans and nature is fundamentally shifted.  But it is also clear how the collective activity of humans – and global warming in particular – has a demonstrable impact on the environment and, in particular, the rapidly receding glacier.  Our highly capable guides welcomed the group and took every opportunity to educate us about the surroundings and the dynamic changes underway.

As we started our journey from the trailhead at the bottom of Mendenhall Lake, we “leaders” quickly found ourselves in the role of followers - learning, reflecting upon, and discussing key lessons about teamwork from and with our guides and our newfound colleagues from the military.

  • Leaders can and will find themselves in the role of followers, and followers can and will be leaders, depending on the situation and as skills, roles, and responsibilities evolve.
  • Leaders need to provide clear instruction and coaching, to enable rapid learning and competent execution.
  • Followers need to be prepared (or “squared away” as our military colleagues would say), to listen (of course), and to have time to practice executing what they have been told and shown, in order to execute.
  • Followers also need to identify issues, ask questions, and ask for help when they need it.
  • Everyone on the team is bound together, and all are accountable to help one another however they can, and to continue to improve.

Other metaphorical lessons emerged from learning correct approaches to moving as a team over difficult terrain.

  • Pace - Backpacking, like running a business (or living a life) is a long-term endurance activity, not a sprint, so it is important to establish and maintain a pace that can be sustained over time. Paying close attention to breath is a good way to maintain a level of activity that is sustainable.
  • Balance is critical to maintain health, see and assess options, and make good decisions.
  • Short, sure steps are (almost always) better than large leaps, and where large leaps are required, it is almost always better to lend (and receive) a hand or trekking pole, to make sure that everyone can navigate the terrain.

As we learned incrementally how to use specialists’ equipment – crampons, ropes, and ice axes – we grew more comfortable navigating the glacial terrain.  Our Special Forces colleagues explained that the reason they are “special” is that they flawlessly execute basic techniques.  This reminded us of the WU Way and the lean management tools and systems – if you want to be special, first master the basics!  Also, a byproduct of learning technical skills together, we faced and to varying degrees shared our individual limits and vulnerabilities, and thereby came to know one another better.  With increased technical competence and knowledge of one another came increased trust across the team.  And as trust deepened, so did our ability to rely on one another.  So, when one of our team sprained an ankle, another felt ill, and yet another experienced an equipment failure, we encountered momentary delays, but – more importantly - we also found opportunities to step to help one another carry the load.  With a shared sense of teamwork - and a corresponding understanding that sometimes you have to slow down to speed up - we came to understand that we would all finish the crucible together.

In discussing leadership principles and experiences with the veterans on the trip, we valued their practice and training in conducting both (a) operational pre-briefings to ensure shared understanding of goals and the sequence and timing of activities required to achieve them, as well as (b) after action reports (“AARs”) to review what happened, what went well (“sustains”), what did not go well, and what can be improved.  These practices reminded us of the WU Way market leader practice of continuous improvement.  These elite soldiers also demonstrated that they value and have been trained to take care of the team and each of its members, to lead selflessly, and to hold themselves accountable to one another.  We enjoyed a lively discussion about the importance of timeliness not only as a sign of respect for others, but also as necessary to ensure operational discipline.  The only non-WU executive on the trip inspired all of us with his passion for building a legacy company that values culture and customer service above all else.

In exploring the glacial and mountainous terrain, we regularly encountered surprises and wonders, which reminded us of the ideas and innovations of our colleagues at WU.  On the last night of the expedition, we experienced sunset at the top of Mt. McGinnis and participated in a powerful group exercise that we will bring back to our teams.  Descending the mountain, dunking ourselves in the cold Pacific Ocean, and enjoying a fine home-cooked meal on the final day and evening of the trip, we were all grateful to have had this extraordinary opportunity to reflect on our lives and our priorities, and to carry the experience forward.

To paraphrase one of our newfound friends’ Facebook posts: “To sleep on a glacier is a lesson in being human.  There are no lights except the reflection of the moon on the ice.  Gushing, blindingly blue rivers disappear into massive tunnels under the ice.  When we drink this water, we drink purity and are reminded of our dependence on the earth’s life-giving resources.  The glacier is ancient yet dynamic, constantly moving and shaping the earth around it.  In the darkened evenings as the temperature dropped, we huddled together with the group:  they were strangers but now we are one team, a tribe.  We shared our experiences, and we opened our eyes to the realization that anything and everything is possible.  Some of us stepped closer to figuring out what we were meant to do; others refined our leadership philosophies with newly gained wisdom.”

This Article was written by

Sarah Johnson Dynamic communications and marketing leader with 15 years of experience in the health care and financial services industries, and a proven track record of building brands, through media relations, creating leadership positioning and achieving measurable goals through integrated communications and marketing strategies.

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