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.
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, 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, 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 super-dysfunctional 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.