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The Power of Adventure in Team Building
Matt Walker is the managing director and founder of Matt Walker Adventures, through which he facilitates adventure learning to connect individuals with their leadership potential in their professional and personal lives. He offers motivational speaking, team building, and professional development coaching that connects the lessons learned from adventuring in the worlds most difficult environments to the challenges and opportunities individuals face every day. Here, we talk to him about Full Engagement Leadership and about how climbing a mountain can help teams overcome barriers. Here’s what he had to say:
What is Full Engagement Leadership?
Full engagement leadership is the state of flow where our personal values align with our actions and we think, behave, and create from a point of stability and energy.
The Five Elements of Adventure provide the foundation of Full Engagement Leadership:
- High Endeavor
- Uncertain Outcome
- Total Commitment
- Tolerance for Adversity
- Great Companionship
What’s your leadership philosophy? Who has inspired you in your career?
To maintain full engagement leadership we must engage the Five Elements of Adventure in all arenas of our life and seek a level of self-awareness that allows us to bring our best work forward while simultaneously supporting the health and well-being of those around us. It is a constantly evolving practice. My approach is to strengthen and sharpen our personal leadership strengths and then apply those to our teams, organizations, and projects; doing so supports the well-being and performance of all involved. A rising tide lifts all boats: be that rising tide.
What inspired you to combine leadership training with mountaineering?
I began my career as an international mountain guide, traveling to all seven continents and climbing the highest peaks in these far away ranges. I began to see a theme with my clients, namely, that they were seeking big adventure in their lives and applying significant focus and drive to reach these substantial goals. Simultaneously, these same clients were challenged by remaining focused and engaged in their work and personal lives. It was clear to me that applying the learning from adventuring back to our personal and professional lives, where we spend the vast majority of our time, would support the health and well-being of my clients. The results have been profound – instead of seeking an escape to a far-off mountain range, apply the same energy at home and in our work – adventure in everything!
How can adventure facilitate learning?
Simply, adventure is a contained microcosm for our experiences in the world. Adventure, and the metaphor of adventure, allow us to step outside of everyday and see whats working and what is challenged. Adventure offers direct and immediate feedback, no grey areas here, we can apply this feedback immediately and change our direction or leadership approach. The learning is rich and sustainable.
What’s one of the most important leadership lessons you yourself have learned during your time in the mountains?
One particular moment sticks with me: I was leading an expedition on Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America, and we had completed a successful summit climb. All eight clients had stood on top and we were descending off the mountain back towards town. This descent took about four days total and the weather was absolutely terrible with high winds, rain, snow, and thunder and lightning; no one was very happy near the end.
We were tired, cold, and only wanted a hot shower and a comfortable bed! During this descent we arrived late in the day to our camp in the midst of a storm and I was deciding where to place our tents. It was pouring rain and I poked my head in the tent of another party to ask a few questions while my team waited in the rain and cold. I spent too much time talking with this other group and my team felt abandoned in the storm while I was out of the elements. I had failed to communicate clearly with my team as to what I was doing and the why behind it. As a result, the team was left to make assumptions and create a narrative for my behavior: I abandoned them in the storm for shelter. As a leader, I had failed to simply communicate to my team the what and why and intention of my behavior. Simple as that but with real consequences.
Why do you want your clients to get out of their comfort zones? What starts to happen when they do so?
My clients seek to step out of their comfort zones because of an innate draw towards excellence and challenge. Often clients are feeling stuck or stagnant in areas of their personal and professional lives. Adventure offers a way to move out of your comfort zone and the lessons begin to reflect immediately back in other areas of your life. Adventure simply provides the experience for learning – the application comes from the combination of facilitation, consulting, and coaching.
Can you share one of your favorite success stories?
Two of my favorite success stories involve a similar dynamic: a team where values and vision were not in alignment that resulted in interpersonal friction and decreased effectiveness launching a new product to market. One instance played out 800 feet off the ground while rock climbing and the other played out on a grassy lawn during a team off-site. The mechanism of how the learning took place is adventure-based, but that is secondary to the learning that took place by team members and then applied immediately for a successful outcome. The true success comes when I can create the learning opportunity and then get out of the way so that the clients can do and experience the learning themselves.
What leadership training or team-building methods have you found are less effective at inspiring growth?
My experience is that team-building methods that are simply games or physical problem-solving challenges are not effective tools for growth: they may be fun and engaging for a time but they are not sustainable learning experiences. I am not a fan of ropes courses or challenge courses. For me that type of experience feels contrived – I seek to create real life experiences with real consequences and real outcomes. My goal is for clients to truly embody the learning and that comes from real adventure, not a playground or amusement-park type experience.