Having finished cinching down the buckles of our llama’s saddle, my tent mates and I took turns loading our gear on the animal for the first time. It was a hot day and we were sweating greatly, yet as my eyes shifted to the trail ahead, it was clear the snow-capped peaks in the distance would offer something quite different. I am part of a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition where a group of thirteen senior executives are practicing the art of leadership by exploring the Wyoming backcountry together. We will navigate many miles of increasing elevation daily. We will learn new outdoor skills and how to care for the environment. Yet, most importantly, we will learn to behave in ways that inspire deep trust with one another.
A core part of the learning comes from the llamas themselves. Magnificently agile animals, they can leap over three feet high logs, with 70 pounds on their backs, and calmly stick the landing on the side of a wet cliff. It’s an amazing sight to behold. Much like humans, they also have different personalities, varying moods and preferences. Some are more dominant than others and “act up” if placed in the back of the pack. Others are almost cliquey in nature, and will only move efficiently when placed next to their best bud.
Similar to leading with a team of direct reports toward a goal, our group had to learn how the llamas wanted to be managed! We had to uncover the pack’s dynamics, assess their personal needs, and then adjust our management style to meet those needs. For instance, we quickly learned that a command and control style would often backfire immediately (as it does in most modern organizations). In fact, push too hard, and you just might get spit on in retaliation! However (unless you speak llama) it’s rather hard to communicate a vision and then empower a llama to drive results. The llamas needed a balanced approach to leadership; not only one that took into account the environmental pressures being placed on us to accomplish the day’s mission, but also brought them into the decision-making process. Over the course of seven days together, here’s what a bunch of llamas taught us:
1. Know when to give ‘em more lead, and when to reel ‘em in
We all took turns as a llama handler as we trekked across the remote and sometimes dangerous terrain. When guiding your animal, you hold onto what’s called a lead, which attaches to their bridle and gives you about 6 feet of rope to work with. Mastering how much of that lead you hold in your hands is an art and it’s constantly changing. When navigating tight areas, you might shorten it to just a foot or two so you maintain strong control. When crossing a fast moving creek, you might release all of the length, giving your llama the freedom to cross the danger as he sees best. The parallels to leading a direct report are clear. Sometimes they “don’t know what they don’t know,” and you need to provide strong direction and guidance to best help them. Other times, strong guidance works against you as a manager, and reports need space to find their own solutions. A great manager does not adopt a single style of leadership, rather applies the right style based on the individual’s need and the task at hand.
2. Listen to your llama, sometimes they know best
On day five, we began our descent from roughly 11,500 feet. The terrain was steep, rocky, and the riskiest part of the week’s expedition. As we descended, it was unclear as to where a proper trail was at times. At one point we attempted to lead our llamas down a particularly steep part of the trail. We knew it wasn’t a great route, but it looked doable and appeared to be our only option. Then our lead llama just stopped in his tracks. “Not going that way” he communicated to us by digging his heels in and refusing to budge another step. At first we tried pulling harder, then we tried a gentle smack to the animal’s rear. Usually this would get your llama moving again but this time was different. He just sat there, looking at us like we were crazy. Then it occurred to us, maybe he knows something we don’t and we started searching harder for an alternate route. Lo and behold, there was a much better trail about 20 feet to our left! The llamas then followed us down safely. The lesson was clear, sometimes as a leader you must get out of your own way. There will be times when your followers know best. Perhaps it’s the front line manager who knows your customer’s needs better than you do. Or maybe it’s the brilliant middle manager who just needs space to voice that next best idea to the company. The best managers know when to lead and when to follow.
3. Love your llama, and your llama will love you back
Finally, the llamas helped ground the importance of being a servant leader. When you are deep in the backcountry, you quickly realize how important the llamas really are. If one were to get injured or developed a saddle sore, we as a team would be carrying an additional 70 pounds between us. As such, we used an old cavalry saying to help guide our priorities of work each day; “First, take care of the horse, then the saddle, then the man.” This translated to first feeding and watering your llama, then setting up your group’s tent and collective responsibilities, then tending to all your personal needs. Repeating this process multiple times a day emphasized where a leader needs to be dedicating his or her valuable time. You simply won’t meet your goals without your follower’s dedication and team’s support. Yet, when your actions consistently demonstrate a willingness to put other’s needs above your own, you cannot fail to inspire respect, admiration and loyalty.
So yes, I believe that you can learn much about leadership from a llama. In fact, the greatest lessons often came from allowing a llama to lead you. Yet, like all successful relationships, it is a reciprocal dance of give and take. The llamas would be lost without us, wandering aimlessly without purpose, and we lost without them, struggling mightily under the limits of our human capacities. I offer that you go find those llamas in your life that need your leadership, then practice working the lead, listening deeply when challenged, and serving them every day. Do so, and you are destined to climb some impressive mountains together.
If you are adventurous business executive who enjoyed this post, I invite you to “follow” this blog or connect with me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can share with you upcoming NOLS/AAL expeditions that you may want to take part in.