6 leadership lessons I learned from the Costa Rican jungle

It’s been a year since my first solo expedition into the Costa Rican jungle. On a whim, (some would say a mid-life crisis), I made my epic journey from New Zealand to this beautiful Central American country. Why? Mainly just to prove to myself that I could do it.

Although my adventure is now a hazy memory, the ripples of learning from that trip continue to offer up wisdom in ways I never expected.

Here are 6 lessons I learned from the Costa Rican jungle:

1. Do things that scare the living daylights out of you – and do them on a regular basis. Don’t just apply this to yourself – a skilled leader will take their team beyond their comfort zones. This leads to growth, innovation, and a step change – for you and your team. Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Deborah Gruenfeld, says that in order to build self-confidence you need to do things that put you in the red zone. “Try things you don’t think you can do. Failure can be very useful for building confidence.”

Diving into the South American jungle on my own with a bunch of strangers took a bucketload of chutzpah for someone who is usually such a timid traveller. Setting yourself and your team challenges that scare you a little (or a lot) builds confidence and increases your chances of success in the long run.

2. Be as prepared as a Boy Scout or Girl Guide (but then just wing it). Do your preparation. Plan for worst case and best case scenarios. Then plan and prepare a bit more. But don’t be so rigid in your mindset and so hell bent on your approach that you miss the opportunity to take the different (and better) route when it’s staring you square in the face. I packed so much mosquito repellent in my toilet bag, it drew raised eyebrows at customs. But once I arrived in Puntarenas Province, I shed everything that didn’t serve me – both literally and metaphorically. I wore little more than a sundress and no makeup; and as I shed all the unnecessary outer stuff, I shed the shackles of my outdated mindset. I became more open to whatever was in front of me. I had some of the most incredible experiences of my life, many of which would never have happened if I had stuck rigidly to ‘The Plan’.

3. Which brings me to my third lesson from the Costa Rican jungle. Adopt a beginner’s mindset. Reject the all-knowing, superhero expert leader archetype that is so prized within most organisations. The best leaders I know are always curious and willing to admit they don’t have all the answers. They’re open to listening and learning from everything and everyone around them. When I opened my eyes (and heart) to the people and environment of this new country, I really began to see and then learn lesson upon lesson.

4. Harsh and difficult can be good for you. At the very least, these states don’t necessarily mean ‘bad’. Don’t reject tough experiences outright. Don’t see failures or difficulty as awful – or automatically label them ‘negative’. There were moments during my jungle retreat where I felt superbly uncomfortable – physically, mentally (and if I’m honest, emotionally). But it was exactly what I needed at the time; all part of the experience and the journey. And with distance, I now see that those most difficult moments were also the richest in terms of my learning.

5. Turn to nature if you really want wisdom. If you’re a leader with a problem, turn to nature for your answer. I can almost always find a useful metaphor for me or my coaching clients by turning to nature. Case in point? In the jungle, death is part of the natural order of things. The jungle effortlessly demonstrates that immutable law – to make way for new growth, the cycle of life means something needs to ‘die’. In organisations, we need to get better at letting some things die (sacred cows, products, long-held assumptions, roles) in order to make room for the new – the things more relevant for the times. The Costa Rican jungle effortlessly demonstrated leadership lessons better than any Harvard article I’ve ever read.

6. Finally, always have music as your companion. Any journey without music is a duller one. Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” So if you want to escape your dreary office, transport yourself to South America and lose yourself to some sick tunes, listen to this playlist that I compiled when I was in the Costa Rican jungle. Every time I listen to it, it transports me back to the heat, the smells, the beauty and the friends I met in Manuel Antonio.

My seminal journey to Costa Rica feels like it was a lifetime ago, but I know I’ll return. And I know its magic is still weaving itself into my heart and soul.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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