What Walking Across the Desert can Teach about Leadership

July 27, 2017


In 2005, I walked unassisted across part of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia. I completed this with my brother and two other men during the winter months of the year, principally as it is bordering on suicide to even think about completing the trek in the summer months. Unassisted, by the way, means we had no support vehicles or teams. We were dropped off in the desert and walked west to the coastal highway.


Roughly the size of California and Illinois combined, the Pilbara is in the very north west of the Australian land mass and is listed as one of the last great global wilderness regions. It is only 0.8% populated on a person per square kilometre basis, with most people contained to the several mining/Oil & Gas communities and towns in the region. As the photo shows, the towns are separated by vast distances, with no sign of human inhabitation in-between. The photo shows my brother and I at our finish pickup point on the coastal highway.  Other than this sign and the road, the only other things we saw on the walk – from a western civilisation viewpoint- was one old fencepost with a beer bottle at its base and a dead cow.


It had taken a long full day of driving to get to our start point, and once we began walking, if we needed medical assistance or evacuation, it was two days flying time for the Royal Flying Doctor Service Helicopter to reach us from Karratha Airport. We were, totally, on our own and reliant on each other and our bushcraft skills. Let me be very clear. This is hard country. Pilbara, in the local language, means ‘dry’- and that’s exactly what it is. The photo gives an example of the spinifex grass, stony ground, and the many ridges of the kind we had to cross. This is iron ore country, producing the base commodity for the worlds steel needs. Water is irregular and limited to rock pools hidden amongst the ridges. There are no running creeks or rivers to cool your feet on this trip. We had to locate water each night, and this was going to be our biggest issue on the walk.


I had been asked to walk a particular route by the local aboriginal people. As part of their programme, they were overlaying old tribal routes and locations onto modern digital geospatial maps. Armed with a GPS and digital camera, our role was to walk their old song line and record location and any images of artefacts encountered.  What is known as a ‘songline’ is where the people would learn the trail as a child through singing the key marker points. By way of simple explanation, think of it as you learnt a nursery rhyme as a child; only instead of ‘jack and Jill going up the Hill to fetch the pail of water’ this song recorded actual waterholes, meeting points, junctions and tribal boundaries. People learnt it to remember their country, what was located in it, and where. As they grow older, the songline becomes more complex and involves seasons, food sources and their lore. (my apologies to any person who may be offended by my description of a songline. No offence intended)


Without reservation, leading a small group unassisted through an inhospitable desert to take photos of rock art would have to be one of the hardest undertakings in my life.


Here’s what I learnt from the experience as the team leader:


1.    Remember the Big Picture. Leadership is about inspiring people to do things they might otherwise choose not to do. Selling the ‘why’ was incredibly important as it kept the focus on the trip. All four of us understood ‘why’ we were out there humping 30kg packs across some really tough country. We were there to help on a major project for a local indigenous organisation. We were to complete the field work for their digital project, which could be passed through as learnings to their children. All of us ‘bought in’ and were fully engaged on the task.


2.    Inspire. Inspiring the team is not an email sent out once a month. It’s done every day through your actions as well as your words. You are selling a vision to the team, and you need them to buy it. Particularly if you’re the one with the map and the plan. We were several days in and we’d walked into a waterhole, only to find it dry. We shared out what water we had left, and then had to walk another 11KM to the next waterhole, only to find that dry. Checking the map, I saw that we had to now walk a further 13KM to the next site, and we had no water left between us. We now had to walk dry and watch each other for heat stresses. At this point, one member of the group began to argue that we should break out the emergency beacon and call the rescue helicopter. I walked him away from the other two, and we sat in a shady spot, and we had a very hard, very quiet team leader- team member conversation. We were two days from rescue, and if we stayed, we were going to be in very bad shape- perhaps even death. I reminded him of our reason, what he’d signed up for, and that we were all getting out of this together. I hadn’t let him down so far, and I had a plan. I asked him to believe in me. He finally agreed, and we walked a very long, very dry 13km. When we finally stumbled into this waterhole, it was late at night- and it was also dry….


3.    Technically Competent. I had been living and working in the region for some years and I understood the local plants and animals a little better than the others. I knew that if I could find a particular grass species, a sort of bull rush, water would be close to the surface. We just had to dig under the plant. I explained to the others what to look for. Dry mouthed, incredibly tired as we had walked over 30km that day, almost to the point of hallucination, we donned head torches and started scouting for the plant. My brother found one lonely specimen, and we began to dig. We found water about 40cm down, and then had to build a still, and wait for it to fill. This took about an hour, and was just about the longest sixty minutes of our combined lives, but it was the best water I’ve ever tasted. A leader should be technically competent in the job. You don’t need to know everything, but you do need to know where to look, who to ask, and what to do when things go awry in the workplace. Knowing the day job will get a certain level of respect, that’s just good management. Knowing what to do when the job goes bad is what separates the leader from a manager, and that’s technical competence.


4.    Communicate. Directing people to complete a task is simple enough. Be clear in the delivery, set a time, and ask them to repeat what you have just asked them to do. By getting them to repeat back to you, it ensures that their personal bias has not adjusted the actual task. It also means that the real job you want done, gets done. Between the four of us we each had a specialist skill. Whilst we all understood first aid, radio procedure, understanding and interpreting the rock art, navigation and bushcraft etc. – each of us had to master one of these skills. Mine was to navigate. I had the map, I had the plan, I knew the route we had to take. A good leader also knows when to listen to his team. If a team member has a better way, encourage them to speak. We were traversing a nasty ridgeline, and the route down I’d chosen was steep, and full of loose rocks. It was also the most direct, and I was too tired to look for an alternative. One of the team came to me and pointed out a path on the next ridge. It was further to walk, but the path was easier on our bodies. If I hadn’t listened to him, one of us would’ve probably turned an ankle or worse on the path I’d chosen. When you’re the leader, it’s easy to fall into the trap of speaking first and thinking you have the best ideas. Learning to listen, and more importantly, creating the safe space so your team members feel confident they can raise an issue with you is critical to good leadership. Let them speak, and then thank them.


5.    Personal Character. Leadership is incredibly lonely. If it’s your plan, and you believe in it- stay the course. Your team will watch you, and if you’re actions don’t match your words, they will notice. The true test of a person’s character is what they do, when they think nobody is watching. Because, the truth is that somebody is always watching your every behaviour. You must display a strength of character to keep going, as the team will feed off it. This is as much about personal character as it is about mental strength. Also, never ask a person to complete a task that you are not prepared to do yourself. When I had the quiet conversation with that team member, part of the arrangement was that I would carry some of his equipment. It lightened his load, so he could keep going. If you’re the leader, you need to step up and show your character- often when you least feel like doing so, but that’s usually the time its most needed.


6.    Resilience. Sometimes, it is about gritting your teeth and pushing through. If you put yourself in the right place, you never know what’s around the corner. Stay patient, stay positive, and keep going. The night we built the still, we drank till our bellies were bursting. We filled all our water bottles, and we wet our hats, so we could last a full day walking. We walked a long next day, and made our planned campsite. There was a good waterhole, enough for us to take our boots off and wash our feet. We were in good spirits and we went to bed around a fire. Later that night, incredibly unseasonably, a massive storm blew in. It rained for a good couple of hours, and in the morning, we were soaked. Water was everywhere. It never rains in this desert in winter- you can just about take that to the bank. By staying in the game for one more day, by not activating the Emergency beacon, by just pushing through, by being in the right place when opportunity presented, we had managed to overcome our biggest issue- sourcing water. Remain resilient as a leader, as that opportunity you’re waiting for, could be just around that next bend in the working week.


Probably the last point I learnt about leadership from this trip is that it is incredibly rewarding. Taking a team into the desert, completing the task, and bringing them all home again safely- gives an amazing feeling of success and completion.


The trip ended with a long list of sites recorded, and a camera full of great photos. We handed the information over to the local people, who were surprised at the detail and some of the pictures. One site in particular, which we had found by sheer chance, as it was inside a small cave system was very important to the people. They believed the site had been lost, and were very excited to see the photos and know it’s GPS coordinates.


Whilst I do not recommend you need to do anything as crazy as this walk, I hope you can take some of my learnings on leadership, and apply them to your daily workplace and your team so that you too can gain that sense of reward.


In a somewhat questionable act of self-harm, I took another group out to circumnavigate Karijini National Park in 2006. Roughly the size of New Jersey, this park is full of wonderfully cool, shady swimming holes and beautiful campsites. Of course, we ignored those completely and instead walked the stony ridgelines and dry gullies for a week. Exhilarating? Yes. Crazy? Absolutely.

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