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Friday, August 1, 2014

Part 2: Mysteries of Leadership Revealed in the Amazon

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.

Read Part 1 here

As we assessed the situation silently and individually, we reflected on our location. We had traveled 220 kilometers by bus from the city of Manaus, which sits in the center of the Amazon Rainforest at the convergence of the Salomoes River and the Rio Negro. After leaving the bus when it crossed the Rio Urubu, we had taken a boat for 30 kilometers up the river.

After five of those 30 kilometers, we had left behind all signs of human settlements. The last inhabitants of this area, the Urubu tribe, had been moved by the government 25 years earlier when they tried to kill the workers building the highway on which our bus had traveled. From our camp you could travel in almost any direction for hundreds of kilometers and encounter nobody.

We continued to follow Pleno for another 15 to 20 minutes, basically operating from a state of denial. This environment was totally alien to us; Pleno belonged there. Even if his actions conflicted with our own intuition, we continued to follow.

Once we passed a telephone tree, which Soares had demonstrated for us the previous day. When whacked with a machete, it makes a loud noise which carries through the jungle better than any other sound, including the human voice. I timidly motioned and suggested to Pleno that he stop and strike the tree. But Pleno disregarded the suggestion and in doing so, reinforced our sense of insecurity about our own instincts.

In his panic, Pleno stopped choosing the clearest passages and was no longer using his machete. At times we had to crawl through the thick bush and vines, but we continued to follow. It was after 5 p.m. and the jungle was nearly dark when we stumbled across a small, sandy clearing. This place was different from the jungle. The clearing was about 20 feet in diameter and its immediate surroundings consisted of shorter scrub trees and wild pineapple. With the cloud cover remaining from the afternoon rainstorm, there was no visible sun, but the sky still held some light. We knew there would be 30 more minutes of light here. This open area seemed like an answer to a prayer.

Pleno’s next directive resulted in mutiny. As he motioned for us to return to the dense jungle to continue our search, we refused. We could no longer deny our instincts, no matter how alien the environment. With only 20 minutes of daylight, we shifted our attention from finding our camp to preparing ourselves for the night ahead.

Other than his possession of a machete and matches, Pleno was useless at this point. He paced our clearing as if some small sign was there to show him where to go. Finally he stopped and shouted in Portuguese that he “had to clear his head.” He pulled a cigarette from his pocket, lit it, and squatted.

We assessed quickly what our resources were and what we needed for the night. Already we could hear puma crying in the distance. A fire would be essential. In my own mind I was calculating that sitting in the sand would be better than standing or squatting in the jungle. In the bush there are too many dangerous unknowns crawling around. Poisonous spiders and 18-inch blood-sucking worms emerge from the earth when it rains. Just the day before, Soares showed us a bright green poisonous spider which he claimed has never been cataloged by scientists.


We decided that Oran had the loudest voice. Rather than giving up complete hope of being found that night, he took the job of calling for Soares, who must have known by now that we were lost. One of Soares’ teachings kept returning to us: “There are good and bad spirits in the jungle. When you are lost, the worst thing to do is give up hope. The absence of hope provides an open door for the bad spirits. They will entice you farther and farther into the jungle. They may disguise themselves as the sounds of a voice, a river, or a telephone tree, and can lead you into oblivion and eventually to insanity.” We were starting to see how this could happen. The jungle is immense beyond description.

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