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Ourward Bound
Wendy Alexander | 25 March 2019

Three unexpected lessons after a week at Outward Bound

Last week I stepped away from my usual life to invest in my own learning and development.

I bade farewell to my family and warm bed, farewell to my amazing team at Kin, and headed off for a week in Anakiwa with Outward Bound.

When I arrived in Picton after a smooth sailing from Wellington, I discovered I was the last out of 12 to arrive at the ferry terminal meet-up point. I was hustled to the bathroom with my bag and instructed to “change into something you can run in and that would also be suitable to swim in – including footwear”.

From that first morning onward, dry shoes became the highlight of any given day.

Through all of the outdoor adventures and challenges, and the intensive workshops using 360° leadership feedback – here are three things I learned about leadership during my week in the wilderness:

Outward Bound 


Expect the unexpected

The ethos at Outward Bound is to let you know only what you need to know, when you need to know it. Now I’m a person who is comfortable with the known and routine is my friend, so this was a refreshing yet sometimes challenging change!

My best example of this ethos came at the end of our first day. After gathering our group (called a Watch) of 12 together at the ferry terminal and a brief round of introductions, we went on a 3km run around the bay.  Then were asked to swim 100m out to a cutter. I am not a fan of swimming, so this early task was a real test for me.

Most of us had never sailed before but our task was to crew the boat some 3 hours out of Picton harbor and into a remote bay. On arrival we went straight into a leadership workshop, full focus, lots of conversation.

We broke for a brief dinner break, cooked by our Watch using only a basic BBQ and rudimentary rations (think packet risotto and freeze-dried peas), then returned to the workshop for more learning and sharing. By 9.30pm we were pretty exhausted.

On walking toward the accommodation area, we were asked to pause on the beach for a final team brief for the night. It was cold, dark, and we were all weary.  We were informed that our accommodation was to be the cutter we had arrived on – moored 150m out at sea. Our task as a team was to gather our sleeping bags, a towel, and a change of clothing into a small dingy, and swim it out to our floating accommodation. No humans in the dingy.

For me, this was hands down a massive ask. I was out of my comfort zone by:

·      Meeting and sharing with a group of people I’d never met

·      Making friends with swimming (and now doing it in the dark)

·      Sharing a sleeping space and getting changed in front of strangers!

As I lay awake under the stars that night, listening to the gentle snoring of a shipmate, it struck me that leading a business has just as many unexpected curve balls. And yet when I face them on a day to day basis, I’m in a familiar environment doing something I’m an expert at, working with people I like, trust, and know well. Next time things feel curly at work – I’ll be referencing that first night on the cutter!


 

None of us are as strong as all of us

To say I am not a fan of water is an understatement. I love a hot shower, but I’m not a person who likes a bath. I might dip my toes into the sea or a pool if it’s super-hot, but swimming just isn’t my jam. The challenge thrown down to swim to our sleeping quarters that first night undid me. I actually thought our facilitator was joking. I graciously declined the offer.

In the following 20 minutes while my Watch mates readied themselves with varying degrees of enthusiasm, I offered up a bunch of well-considered arguments to our facilitators and explored with them more deeply my fears.

They helped me to see that in not taking up the challenge, I’d miss out on a rich learning experience about grit. Not to mention the critical first night with my Watch group.

I’m thankful to them that they managed to do this is such a short space of time because I was pretty adamant I wasn’t going for a midnight dip!

I’m grateful too for the support, encouragement, and non-judgement of my Watch mates. I had a wing-man all the way out to the cutter, we swam as a team, and we arrived together, cold, wet, and tired as a team.

This team support played out time and time again for each of us in the days to follow. None of us are as strong as all of us – big learning for me.

 


Technology can serve you, but it can also enslave you

On arrival at Outward Bound – all technology is removed for safe-keeping. The only device allowed is a watch (waterproof!), and even that is surrendered for the solo experience.

Sailing over on the ferry before the course started, I was quietly fretting about being off the grid. As we navigated our way through the Sounds, I was diligently responding to Slack messages, and tidying up last minute email. Handing over my phone (and my Kindle) felt like losing all connection to my world. And it was.

From the first Outward Bound challenge, through to the last, I didn’t think about my phone once. Not once. So completely immersed was I in being present for each event, for being supportive to my Watch mates when needed, to coping through the most grueling physical challenges, there was no time to think about anything else.

On our final afternoon at Anakiwa, we sat down as a group to do some journaling and some feedback paperwork. At that point we were also given access to our wallets in case we wanted to purchase any Outward Bound merchandise. Our wallets were housed with our devices.

Every single one of us took back our phones with a degree of regret. We each placed them (still turned off) across the room from our workspace and agreed not to even turn them on until we were dropped off by boat back at our original meeting point for departure to our various home locations.

Every meal time, every challenge, every workshop, we spent it together. Talking, supporting, sharing, eating, climbing, rowing – at each activity we were fully present. It was bliss to be free from the constant chatter of interrupt driven communication. To be fully present for every moment we were there.

I have pledged to myself to put better boundaries in place around being on the grid. At a certain time each day, my device will take it’s relegated place away from where I am sitting, and stay there until the next morning. I plan to buy a watch too, so that my phone doesn’t accompany me to meetings as a time-keeping piece.

I want to be as present for those in my life as I was for my Watch team at Outward Bound. I want my personal tech to serve me, not to enslave me.

When I committed to spending a week at Outward Bound in October last year, I thought it was a fantastic idea. When March came around and it was time to head off, I wondered what on earth I was thinking!

I can honestly say my experience at Outward Bound has been one of the most rewarding risks I have ever taken. 


What risks have you taken lately?