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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Part 3: Mysteries of Leadership 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.


Without saying so, we all thought about the French team, what they must have felt during their wanderings, and how they must have looked upon their emergence from this jungle three weeks earlier, with clothes torn off and their minds nearly crazy.

Soares’ advice, “don’t give up hope and the good spirits will help you,” had new meaning. Linda and I sought and found dry wood in the immediate area. However, our find consisted mostly of small twigs and branches that were good for starting a fire but were not likely to last all night. With less than 15 minutes of light remaining, we then had to face the prospect of a wood-gathering trip back into the bush, where night had now arrived.

I was the first to hear the telephone tree, but the others discounted it as we continued with our tasks of calling and gathering wood. Each of our chores had become a constructive, even if somewhat neurotic, ritual to channel our anxiety. Ten minutes later we all heard three whacks from the telephone tree, far away but discernible. With Oran’s voice cracking under the strain of shouting for 30 minutes, Linda and I began to shout. Our focus now shifted to being found. Still, in the back of our minds we remembered the bad spirits and each of us scrutinized every sound.

After 10 more minutes of yelping and hooting we thought we heard a voice respond, then another, and another. It was so far away; its direction impossible to pinpoint. Pleno immediately headed into the bush, but we refused to follow. With the notion of the bad spirits fresh in our minds and the fear of losing the voice in the dense bush, if it was indeed real, we stayed put. Pleno reluctantly returned to our sanctuary.

As the voice became more distinct, we finally felt secure enough to leave our clearing and plunge into the darkness of the bush. With his machete in hand, Pleno again became useful and we gladly returned the role of leader to him. The large underground holes which are the homes for tarantulas and foot-high rodents were no longer visible in the dark. Almost at a run we followed Pleno, stopping every couple of minutes to untangle ourselves from vines and to call out and correct our course. Our focus was not on the danger around us but rather on reaching Soares.

After a 20-minute jog, we saw Soares’ face framed between banana leaves. He looked more like a savior than a jungle guide. We didn’t know how he found us. It was only later that we learned from Bobby that Soares, in the middle of building a fire, suddenly said: “they are lost.” He took off, running through the jungle with no further explanation.

We followed Soares for another 20-minute jog before we reached our camp. In his run through the jungle to find us, Soares had not marked his trail, as was his custom. Still, he was able to lead us through the darkness straight to our camp.

For two days we recounted the story to each other as if to verify that it was true and to clarify our feelings. Through the process we discovered valuable lessons about leadership, change, and ourselves.

First, we had transferred our well-earned confidence in one individual to another. Maybe because they looked alike, or talked alike, or associated with each other, we assumed Pleno had the same skills as Soares. It is an assumption that is easily made in an unfamiliar environment, a place where your past experiences appear to have no utility. This feeling is known to anyone who has experienced other environments where rapid change has yielded strange new terrain. It can be a dangerous mistake to make.

Second, we experienced how truly situational leadership can be. During our ordeal the leadership shifted three times. First, Pleno was unquestionably the leader. Next, Linda, Oran, and I shared leadership. In the end, Pleno’s skills were needed again and he readily assumed the lead.

Third, we experienced the pain of taking leadership from an individual whom we wanted to lead us, but who was no longer competent to do so. The three of us did not feel adequate to lead in this strange setting, but when our survival became threatened, we assessed our situation and competencies and worked together. This is reflective of a certain degree of risk-taking many of us find necessary to demonstrate as the conditions surrounding our personal and professional commitments and aspirations change. These changes often leave a leadership-void which we may find necessary to fill.

Fourth, we found new confidence in our own intuition and ability to respond under unfamiliar circumstances and stress.

Fifth, we experienced the doubt and anxiety of questioning authority within a context which was unfamiliar to us. We should have done it sooner. At first we each thought that we were overreacting. We kept our fears and doubts to ourselves. No one wanted to appear frightened. We all wanted to be “cool.” Finally, we acknowledged our anxiety and the realities provoking it; and we took action. We are left with the question of why this was so difficult to do.


For each of us, our jungle experience has provided rich and poignant metaphors to instruct and guide us through our own jungles of constant change, politics, personal searching, and occasional fears that the problems we strive to correct are just too big. We are now aware of the good and bad spirits which reside in our jungles. To give up hope is to surrender to the bad spirits. To maintain hope when no solution is imaginable opens the doorway to good spirits and the magic of the human spirit. Maybe, in the end, the true leader is that person who is capable of having hope before she or he can develop a scenario for success.

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