Barmy Bush-Chooks (Emus), majestic Wedge-tailed Eagles and laughing Kookaburras are some of the unique birds you expect to hear and, if you are lucky, see in the ruggedly wild Australian Outback Flinders Ranges. But during the September 2011 Operation Flinders Exercise, for the first time ever, the hills were alive with the sound of … Geese. An endless, repetitive din that could be heard for 8 days. ”Honk Honk” returned by “Honk Honk” … repeated. David Attenborough’s excitement levels would have risen to new heights at this unique spectacle! Geese, en-masse, in the Flinders Ranges … wow!
Operation Flinders is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a challenging 8 day Bush Adventure Program for young people at risk, aged 13-18. Teams of 10 participants are guided by the leadership team consisting of 2 Counsellors, Peer Group Mentor, Assistant Team Leader and Team Leader.
The challenges include overcoming painful blisters during the 100km trek, “didn’t we just pass that tree 20 minutes ago?”, learning how to orient the squiggly lines on the map to the never-ending hills to reach camp before dark, “where’s North again?”, sleeping under the stars in all weather, “the zip on my sleeping bag is broken”, discovering indigenous culture sharing kangaroo tail soup round a campfire, “look at all those stars!”, conquering all-consuming fear while going over the abseiling cliff-top, “I can’t do it!” and managing the full spectrum of extreme, competing emotions; often all within a few moments “#^&* @#$!”. But the greatest challenge for these kids is often the no screens policy i.e. no phones, tablets, cameras, watches “NO WAY!”. The scene is set to build resilience through encouraging engagement and collaboration; with self, with others, with nature. Oh … did I mention the FUN these kids have?
The objective is for these disconnected kids to step outside their normal lives to experience another way of being in the world. They often arrive feeling angry, lashing out with self-destructive and self-defeating behaviours; fighting themselves, others and nature. The program uses a proven approach common to most Wilderness Therapy and Bush Adventure Therapy programs. Small groups being challenged in Nature creates a creative, emergent space where transformation of values becomes possible; where the participants can reconnect with themselves (Self), with the group (social) , with Nature (environment) and with a higher purpose in their lives (spirit).
I was the Assistant Team leader for “Tango 5” that remarkable September, in the “year of the Geese”. Our awesome Team Leader, Paul, was inspired after reading the book, Gung Ho! (Blanchard & Bowles, 1998). It is a parable about how a Business Leader transformed his business into a thriving, healthy organisation by applying 3 principles observed in nature through indigenous eyes:
1. The spirit of the Squirrel
2. The way of the Beaver
3. The gift of the Goose
It is “The Gift of the Goose” that Paul cleverly integrated into his leadership style to transform the lives of his team members, including himself, during that trip. The incessant honking sound that geese make is akin to listening to (and watching) a cheerleader squad in full flight. Each “honk honk” is not an alarm, it is an encouragement .. . “you go girl!” … “keep going mate!” … “you can do this!”. They never give up on each other. Let me repeat that … They never give up on each other!
Paul engaged the team with the story of “The Gift of the Goose” and encouraged us to “honk honk” our way through our daily personal and team challenges. When the struggling stragglers at the end were no longer in sight and feeling demoralised (I was often in that group), we kept connected as a team with our “honk honk” call sign until they caught up again. Endless cries of “honk honk” from above and below the abseiling cliff magically dissolved the paralysing fear when you courageously went over the edge for the first time. When tears made speaking too hard as we said our goodbyes, “honk honk” were the only sounds possible and the only ones needed.
Times of transition, like an Operation Flinders exercise and like we are all experiencing in our lives right now, involve immense change, ambiguity and uncertainty. A leader can become burnt out under such endless, extreme stress. Trust, Hope and Peace become casualties and Fear , Greed and Panic quickly step in and take control.
When geese migrate (or transition) from one place to another they fly together in a V-formation and they share the leadership. When the leader becomes tired (not burnt out), they move to the back and ride in the slip-stream for a while to re-charge and enjoy the scenery and let someone who is fresh step-up to take the lead. As the leader takes a break they receive a “honk honk” for a “thank you, job well done”. As the new leader steps-up they receive a “honk honk” for “you go girl, we are here for you!” There is no rigid, controlling, hierarchical structure; it is flexible, fluid, agile and adaptable to changing, uncertain conditions. Everyone is committed and engaged. Everyone contributes what they can. Everyone participates, collaborates, networks. Everyone is a leader! And no one gives up on anyone; they all cross the finish line together, no prizes for first, second and third; but everyone is transformed. Mission accomplished!
As I set out on this uncertain, ambiguous, transformative journey full of passion and unbridled enthusiasm to explore the intriguing concept of Biophilic Leadership, I know I will need an image to keep me inspired when I feel like giving up. The image of geese flying in V-offers so many insights:
• Collaborate: Nothing of value is ever achieved on your own
• Mindfulness: Situational awareness: local, global; past, present, future; others’ viewpoints
• Transparency: Ask for help when you need it; don’t wait until you are burnt-out
• Inclusion: Diversity brings new perspectives; leave no one behind, arrive together
• Trust: in the process, let go, give up control, become the flow
• Connection: Stay connected with self, others, nature and your higher purpose
• Resilience: Build a strong network for bounce-backability during unexpected events
• Gratitude: Be thankful for everyone and everything in your journey
• Celebrate: Congratulate, acknowledge and encourage small wins and insights
• Have FUN: Laugh a lot! Enjoy the ride.
The biggest insight to remember is that when you have a problem stop and ask:
What would Nature do?