4 Leadership Principles I Learned From Being Stranded on a Deserted Island with a U.S. Senator

Last summer, I took key members of my leadership team to a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean for five days so we could learn about ourselves and each other. Our leader was Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator, who had been marooned on a tiny strip of land in the Marshall Islands three times before. We didn’t take much — just minimal survival supplies like a water-purifying pump, a fishing spear, a satellite phone for emergencies and the clothes on our backs.

I discovered things about myself, my team and what is important in the world of business that will forever change the way I work. Here are a few of the lessons, some of which have become particularly relevant in light of the challenges caused by the ongoing pandemic: 

The right mindset can help overcome any challenge

Choosing to become castaways for a few days was an extreme idea. We had to figure out everything for ourselves, including drinking water, shelter and basic sanitation. With the wrong mindset, the experience would have been miserable. 

Likewise, it can be easy to know what’s important in the early days of a company, when you’re in survival mode. You focus only on what you need and ignore any outside noise. Once the company begins to succeed, your opportunities expand, but so do the distractions.

Maintaining a survival mindset, especially during times like these, will help when challenges inevitably arise. Spending the bulk of your time on the vital elements of the business will cut through the noise and help the company grow.

Get people out of their comfort zones

When people get away from their set assignments, they often find new talents and abilities that benefit the whole team. On the island, we organically stepped into new roles as strengths emerged, with one of us becoming the chief safety person, another the go-to inventor and others finding similar ways to contribute.

People often surprise us with their ingenuity and resourcefulness when they are given opportunities to stretch outside of their comfort zones. Neither my cofounder nor I came from a technical background, but once we had the idea for Podium, we took the leap and figured it out every step of the way. Creating a culture that enables innovation and welcomes it from any source is vital. 

Surround yourself with reliable people and trust them to do their jobs

It’s easy to overlook mistakes when we go about our daily tasks. The stakes are comparatively low if someone blunders while writing software or filing reports. Being stranded on a deserted island taught me to trust my team on an entirely new level. 

People want to work where there’s a holistic culture of trust, especially going through something as taxing mentally and emotionally as a global pandemic and the impact it may have on work communities. On the island, we bonded tightly together when we had to rely on each other to accomplish critical tasks, which made the experience like a trust fall on steroids. 

I saw how my coworkers would do the essential jobs that kept us alive, and if they did something wrong, they immediately adjusted. Surrounding yourself with people you can count on under any circumstances frees any leader to focus on what is most important for the success of their business.

Keep a clear vision of what is important

On the island, we were so deep into the hierarchy of needs that our entire focus was on food, shelter and hydration. It was clear what was important, and nothing else really mattered.

Leaders can likewise promote a clear understanding of what is important through transparency. At my company, we hold a weekly all-hands meeting to discuss all of the company’s business — even information that most organizations would reserve for upper management. The Covid-19 pandemic has really hammered home how much conveying that transparency matters to the success of the entire company, a point backed up by recent workplace data

This is beneficial because we are giving people the data they need to make the best decisions to run their elements of the business. A culture of secrecy encourages people to focus on the things they are not allowed to know, but transparency gives them the vision and tools for success. 

We brought home important lessons about having a positive mindset, expanding our horizons, trusting each other and maintaining a clear vision. Simply figuring out how to live under those circumstances was one of the most challenging things most of us had ever done, but I would happily do it again. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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