Monday, June 27, 2011

Next up... "New Horse"

Episode 1 is behind us and so are those nasty cobras and my obvious inability to count past 10.

I hope you enjoyed the first episode of Expedition Impossible, which aired last Thursday on ABC! Somebody sure did because the show was ranked #1 among adults 18 to 49, teens 12 to 17, and kids 2 to 11—the highest rating the network has had on Thursday night since the finale of Lost in 2008.

While I can’t tell you anything about future episodes, as long as Team No Limits hangs in there, I will post some stories about what happened that you don’t see on the camera.

For example, you may not have realized that the first of the ten stages was actually two days long. The first day of racing wasn’t too critical except the winning team got a 5-minute head start the next morning. And the teams that came in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, then got a 5-minute head start over the remaining teams. It’s the second day of a stage that really matters because that’s when the helicopter may be flying you away.

As we were resting in our Berber tent before the start on the first day, Erik left to go to the bathroom and Mark Burnett came in to have a one on chat with me. Towards the end of our conversation Mark asked me, “Are you sure he’s going to be able to handle this?” I said, “Yeah, I think so.” Then Mark says, “Well I hope we haven’t made a big mistake by having him here.” Of course I saw a great opportunity to fire Erik up by sharing this encounter with him and I actually believe Mark said this on purpose, knowing I would hear about it. Not 100% sure, but if this was part of his plan, it totally worked. When somebody says Erik can’t do something, he tends to get fired up!

At this early stage of the competition, all the teams are checking each other out. We had seen each other in LA at the audition and again in a hotel on the way to Morocco but nobody was allowed to talk to other teams. So Ike and I sized up the others for Erik. We laughed about the guys in knee-high purple socks but, at the same time, they looked pretty fit. We also saw these giant guys, who we later discovered were NFL football players. We joked, “Big trees fall hard.” When we happened to pass Akbar in the hotel, he actually growled at us, which was rather unsettling. It turned out he was totally kidding and is actually a super nice guy!

The first day involved the brutal sand dune climb in searing heat. Notice that out of all 39 contestants, Erik was the only savvy one with enough insight to wear gaiters to keep sand out of his shoes. This may sound like a small thing but everyone else had sand piling down their feet that gave them huge blisters. Ike and I had to stop several times to pour sand out of our shoes. Blind dude gets experience points right out of the gate.

Did I mention how brutal the climb was? The show focused on Chad (from the Country Boys) suffering but I can tell you he wasn’t the only one. Erik and I had just arrived from Colorado, which gave us a bit of an edge, but poor Ike was a flatlander and he really struggled. Of course Ike soldiered on—he’s earned two Bronze Star Medals, a Purple Heart, and an Army Commendation Medal after all— but this raised the specter of doubt about our team’s success for the first time.

The second day was really hard for Erik because it was super rocky as we descended into a valley. This type of terrain is super difficult for him to move through quickly and I got worked. At this point, we were about even with the Fishermen but eventually Erik couldn’t keep up the pace and they passed us. As they went by, one of them turned to us and with that thick Boston accent said, “Remember our names, we’re the Fishermen. We’re for real!” In my typical competitive spirit...that did nothing but make me want to crush those guys.

So lots of early assessments going on on everyone’s part. We can’t fault the girl who wrote us off in the beginning: She said something like, “There’s a blind guy on one of the teams, so I know we’ll beat at least one team.” Like a lot of people, she just had no idea what a blind person is capable of. As we got to know the Fishermen, we actually liked them a lot; they came across as Gloucester gruff at first but were really awesome—sincere, hard working and the kinds of guys who you’d want around in a raging storm. They also had incredible fishing stories, going out to sea for weeks on end and having to be totally self-reliant. The Football Players are actually the nicest guys in the world. Akbar is a gentle giant full of curiosity, except when it comes to all the insects around camp. All the creepy crawlies terrified him.

Our big mistake wasn’t mis-counting the snakes, it was moving too fast. We were among the front runners and just made a mistake, which was a huge bummer that cost us a half hour. But that’s one of the things you learn from experience…you screw up, you make a mistake, deal with it. The reality was that 3 other teams counted wrong as well. However the editors made it appear it was just us that miscounted. Guess I'll always be known for miscounting the snakes.

However, the faster you get over it and the faster you come together as a team and figure how you’re going to remedy the situation and get back on track, the faster you’re back in the game. I was really proud of Ike and Erik because we kept our heads together even though we made this blunder. And Erik never blamed Ike and I for the miscount. He just took it in stride and powered on.

Next week we will take on the horses...and believe me there will be some serious buckin goin down. Listen for the soon to be well documented comment after hitting the dirt, "New Horse".

Well that’s it for now. Stay tuned for next week’s episode and then come back to my blog for more behind the scene stories!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Here We Go!!!!

It's on...tonight!
Starting tonight on ABC, my team No Limits will race 12 other teams across Morocco for the Expedition Impossible prize.
I had mixed feelings about heading into this adventure when Erik first pitched it to me. The prospect of being on a reality show made me throw up a little bit in my mouth. There was no way I wanted to be a part of some Survivoresque, voting off, alliance riddled game show. There just seemed to be no upside to the experience if that was the format and I expressed this concern to Erik.
After a little Q&A with the casting director, we were informed that this "reality show" was actually a harken back to Mark Burnette's Eco Challenge style race.
Now you've got my attention.
Erik and I have competed in several adventure races over the years, most notably PrimalQuest in 2004. After only sleeping 18hrs in 9 days during PQ I swore to never do another race like that again.
Clearly I have remarkable short term memory.
Once Erik and I committed to the race we had to select a 3rd teammate. We could have selected any number of our hundreds of very fit and capable adventuring pals...many of which would have loved to have been a part of such a big production adventure. We went with our new buddy Ike Isaacson, one of the wounded soldiers from our Soldiers to the Summit project last Fall. Ike was injured in combat a few years back and seemed to be a totally capable teammate for this unique experience. The great pitch here was that Ike had some partial hearing loss while in Afghanistan so the perfect team name for us would be "Deaf, Dumb and Blind"...and yes, I accept my role with pride.
The adventure was full of grand TV production clusters...some interesting, others ludicrous and pointless. However the entire experience was exactly what we were looking adventure.
Tune in starting tonight on ABC....see if we can turn the Impossible into something possibly worth watching.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Expedition Leadership in the Wild

A really wonderful article from...

John N. Gans, the Executive Director of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

The lessons about leadership learned in the crucible of the backcountry environment — unpredictable, challenging, and dynamic — map to today's business environment. The wilderness is an unparalleled venue for highlighting team and individual strengths and learning to compensate for shortcomings. Executives from Google and Timbuk2; students from Wharton and the Kellogg School and even most NASA astronauts have evolved through such training. Think of it as an MBA from nature.

Outdoor training activities, even those as straightforward as lightweight backpacking, enable students to actually practice different leadership and communication models so that they can learn about their own leadership style and its impact on outcomes in a group. Understanding their go-to "signature" style allows them to then develop situational leadership skills that can adjust to current events and group needs.

A 2008 University of Utah study focused on the long-term benefits of wilderness education. The study, "Long Term Impacts Attributed to Participation in Adventure Education..." (link PDF) found that, beyond outdoor and survival skills, program graduates gained critical leadership skills including: effective handling of difficult circumstances, the ability to work as a member of a team, strategic planning, and how to communicate positively with diverse types of people.

In the 16 years I've led the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and in the more than 30 years I've been active in the outdoors, I've seen the idea of "expedition leadership" take hold in organizations. In large part, that's because companies are moving away from the traditional hierarchical, command-and-control structures and towards looser networks and flatter org charts.

The concept of expedition leadership as espoused by outdoor training programs effectively turns the command-and-control model on its head. Expedition leaders encourage active followers. All of the members of the team are empowered to make decisions and through their efforts everyone has a role to play bringing clarity to the larger group vision. Middle managers, the business equivalent of an expedition member, generally have the most information about the decisions that need to be made. Giving them permission to make the decision, and see it through, leads to cohesion and rewards, collaboration rather than competition.

As part of outdoor training programs, students are asked to step back and create functional teams that work across traditional departmental lines and outside of a strict hierarchical structure. Setting goals, making a plan, managing resources (food, fuel, etc.), working as a team, and remaining flexible are crucial to a successful backcountry expedition and the expedition of life. The model focuses on collaborative teamwork to achieve goals. Risk management becomes intuitive given the inherent risks and hazards of remote and wild areas.

Outdoor training "was a life changing time for me," said Nantucket Nectars and Plum TV founder, Tom Scott. "The stakes are very real. The chain is as strong as its weakest link. The goal is to arrive at the next place as one. All links intact. I came back a different person."

Even if a team-wide outdoor training isn't in the cards for your group, getting away from the boardroom and into a more natural setting will allow your team to step out of the standard office roles. We do a yearly three day executive team retreat at a nearby nature center where meetings in a rustic setting are combined with "walk and talks" addressing specific issues. Each day a group hike or bike ride is included for exercise and relaxation, but meals are when the real team-building takes place. Preparing a meal together truly illuminates each person's leadership styles and tendencies. Competence, teamwork, and communication are all on display.

Extended wilderness expeditions develop one's understanding of leadership, teamwork, ethics and judgment. Connecting with the wild outdoors in an intense way fosters the kind of self-reliance, judgment, respect, and sense of responsibility that can help leaders thrive in today's shifting organizational landscape.