Lessons in Leadership on the Inca Trail

Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail

I’ve just returned from the trip of a lifetime, a ‘bucket-list’ holiday trekking in Peru, which finished with walking the famous Camino Inka, or Inca Trail.

While treading the thousands upon thousands of stones over the 44km that make up the trail, I couldn’t help wondering who’d laid each and every one, in what year, under what circumstances and how they chose which rocks to put where? It is truly a masterpiece of human engineering and achievement!

And then, at the end of it, Machu Picchu emerges (photo above) as the ultimate mind-blowing destination, nestled on a ridge high in the Andes, one of the man-made wonders of the world.

I also had plenty of time to ponder what leaderships lessons I might take away from such a trip, as several parts were challenging to say the least!

Our Guide, Santiago, is a skilled adventurer who typically walks the trail every week in the peak dry season, and every fortnight in the wet. As an agricultural engineer and self-taught historian, he knew so much about the Incas, the trail, the local fauna and flora, that he was a walking encyclopaedia, not to mention a very grounded and competent young man.

John Broadbent and Santiago on the Inca trail

So what did I learn from Santiago about leadership?

To put it into some context, I once heard world-class leadership coach John Mattone describe ‘three positions of effective leadership‘:

  1. Behind to encourage
  2. Beside to support
  3. In front to protect

Behind to encourage

The first thing that struck me was how Santiago would occasionally point us in a direction (the trail was pretty clear) then stay back, allowing us our freedom, a sense of autonomy and more importantly, setting our own pace. He would then walk his (faster) pace to catch up, congratulate us on our progress and walk with us a while, often commenting on some local features, before dropping back again.

Beside to support

When we came across Inca ruins, Santiago would be fully present with us, explaining all manner of aspects of the architecture, surrounding landscape and specific attributes of the site itself. There was no sense of urgency or impatience, or that any question we might ask would be ‘stupid’: simply an open and honest sharing of information, delivered in a very generous and supportive way.

In front to protect

On day 2, we started the day early, with an 8km uphill climb for almost 5hrs, from 3000m to 4300m. This involved a LOT of stone steps and was by far the most challenging part of the trail! Once we reached the top, a short lunch break preceded the very steep descent for some 1.5km, down to 3600m. Thankfully we had purchased walking poles to support our knees, however I noticed Santiago walked slightly in front of us on this leg, in case one of us stumbled. He was there to protect us from a serious fall.

I also reflected that each guide had to create a functional ‘team’ culture within their tour group, often multinational, and be responsible to ensure that each member completed the trail safely, despite varying levels of fitness.

Dan Pink’s book DRIVE came to mind with his three foundations for a high-performing culture:

  1. Autonomy (over time, team, task and technique)
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

We were certainly given a good deal of autonomy, we knew we were there to master the trail and our mission or purpose was crystal clear: make it to the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu, safely, for sunrise on day 4.

I’m sure Santiago has never heard of John Mattone or Dan Pink, or has never had any formal leadership training, yet his naturally-developed leadership style from years of guiding and trekking, was a pleasure to experience. It made such a difference to feel safe, cared for, engaged, empowered, encouraged and supported to succeed.

The elation expressed by all the trekkers on reaching the Sun Gate by sunrise, and seeing the group hugs and high-fives within and between various walking groups, who for a few days had shared a common experience, was truly a site to behold!

Who knew that trekking high in the Andes would provide lessons in leadership?

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