Editor’s Note: This three-part series is based on the adventures of a small group of Kellogg National Fellows, who discovered a valuable lesson in leadership during a venture into the Amazon jungle of Brazil. The group included the author, Christopher Musselwhite, and other Group VIII Fellows Bobby Austin, Linda Hallenborg, and Oran Hesterman. The travelers were accompanied by their four sons and two Brazilian guides.
As we began our late afternoon jungle walk, we had no hint of the danger to come. Nor could we anticipate the rich lessons about leadership that lay in wait for us. We had just constructed our jungle shelter, an open structure of trees, vines, and palm leaves. Our clothes were soaked from a recent downpour.
When Linda asked Pleno, our main guide’s right-hand man, to take her back down the trail to listen for late afternoon jungle noises, Oran and I joined in. We felt secure as we viewed the six hammocks now hanging from the trees surrounding our shelter with our kids’ four hammocks hanging under the shelter. Bobby, resting in his hammock, decided not to go; and the children, playing their now familiar game of “swing in the hammock,” showed no interest. So the three of us set out for a short walk, with Pleno as our guide.
During the three previous days at our jungle base camp, Soares, our main guide, had told us stories about this jungle and his experiences in it. We knew, for instance, that three weeks earlier a French guide and his party were lost for five nights in the area that we were now exploring. Soares, a most incredible and fascinating person, has the capacity to live in two totally different realities and to do so with great skill. He is a “natural leader.” In Manaus, where our adventure began, Soares is an entrepreneur, building his third successful business, a jungle exploration company. In the jungle, his home from birth, he has knowledge that often exceeds our comprehension, and ways of knowing which we can only speculate about.
There are at least three ways for leaders to gain commitment from followers. One is to get people involved in solving a problem; another is to present the solution and have people plan the implementation; a third is to lead through expertise or competence.
In our situation that afternoon in the Amazon, we perceived our leader, Pleno, as an expert; his recommendations were to be followed automatically, so as not to risk our safety in such unfamiliar terrain. What a unique experience for us—one in which our need to question authority was apparently nonexistent. Thus we embarked on a real-life example of leadership by expertise. Our knowledge of the jungle was so slim and Soares’ so comprehensive that he quickly became the unquestionable leader, authority, and most importantly, our protector. We transferred this confidence in Soares to his young apprentice, Pleno. After all, they looked similar, they spoke the same language, they worked together and they had common experiences to share.
Our walk followed a newly-created trail for about 10 minutes. It was 4 p.m. and the shadows in the jungle were growing. Under the canopy of trees it gets dark by 5:30 and in more open spaces it gets dark by 6:00. After this short walk, Pleno motioned for us to turn around so we could return to our camp before dark. For 15 minutes we followed Pleno as he used his machete to clear our path. After crossing the same log for the second time, each of us began to doubt, and quickly tried to erase the doubts. In retrospect, it was at this point that our learning about leadership began.
Soares had instructed us well in our three days with him. He had told us what the French guide had done wrong: he continued to walk once he was lost. This ran through our minds as we followed Pleno deeper into the jungle. A full 25 minutes passed before Pleno confirmed what we already knew—he could not find his way back to our camp.
Continued in Part Two