Some years ago, I was able to watch one of the events, the Eco-Challenge 2000, on the Discovery Channel. This was my first time of a similar event with highlights that were broadcast across five nights. I was initially skeptical about what I could expect from this program, but my love of the outdoors and team dynamics attracted me to the event.
Eco-Challenge was launched in the year 1995, claiming to be the world’s most prestigious expedition race. The inaugural competition was held in Utah, and subsequent events were held in different nations. For instance, British Columbia hosted the event in Pemberton.
Eco-Challenge 2000 took place at Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The focus was on the wildlife of Malaysia. Essential is the excellent conservation ethic that is a part of Eco-Challenge. For instance, participants who don’t comply with the event’s strict environmental regulations are forced to pull out. The saying goes, “Pack it in, take it out.
The event was an arduous 500-kilometer course that included hiking, sailing, cycling as well as swimming, scuba dive and rappelling. It also included canoeing with indigenous boats. Participants from all over the world took part, with an overall number of teams totaling 76. Canada sent four teams. Each team was comprised of four persons, including a minimum of two females. To be considered to have officially completed the race, it must have remained united all. If one participant resigned (e.g., an injury, for instance), and the team was exempted. This was the beginning of the team to work at a high level in the event that all team members would be successful.
Of the teams of 76, 44 finished the race. However, of those, a few were disqualified due to different reasons. However, they were allowed to continue so to be able to race the 500-kilometer course.
The top performers completed the race in just six days. However, some teams took up to 12 days to cross the final finish line; the most difficult was the 40-kilometer open-sea kayak paddle. Particularly noteworthy was the decision to allow the first time to be described as “non-professional” teams were allowed to take part. The previous contestants were those who had been involved in extreme sports and were “ranked” according to the probability of winning the Eco-Challenge. Therefore, the mix of teams with no experience and neophytes in this contest provided interesting comparisons and lessons.
I was amazed by what the human body can endure in harsh conditions. The majority of participants had trench foot issues as well as some with severe. The constant and aggressive land leeches were found to be among the most stressful factors that contributed to the stress and mental strain of participants. While physical fitness and preparation are obviously crucial for the overall success of teams that completed the course, what was perhaps more crucial was the mental strength of the participants and the way they worked together.
This brings me to share seven critical lessons I learned from the Eco-Challenge and lessons that can be of direct relevance to the efficient working of companies. These are the lessons:
1. Focus on the things that must be done.
Teams that were among the top ten teams that completed the course in just six days refused to fight between themselves even when the pressure reached a point of being overwhelming. They put aside their disagreements and concentrated on the work to be completed. This contrasted with a lot of teams, some of which were unfamiliar with this kind of situation, and others who had some prior experience. There were instances where differences of opinion or perspective developed, and so did the conflict between the teams. These teams ended up spending their time fighting and bickering. For instance, at checkpoints, the best-performing teams stayed for just one or two minutes before proceeding. Other teams, however, have taken up to a long time deliberating on the best way to move forward.
2. Make time to share the excitement of your day.
Teams who let themselves be distracted by in-fighting did poorly (in some instances, dropping out from the competition). They also lost out on the opportunity to share the good aspects of their experiences and develop as a team.
3. Don’t be critical of team members on their own.
In some instances, as documented by one-on-one interviews conducted with participants as the race progressed, the team members would criticize one particular member of the team. An example of this is Carlo, who was constantly complaining regarding his blisters to his feet (which were not that bad as compared to other participants), and one of his teammates was very sick for a couple of days. This caused the other three team members to discredit Carlo and talk negatively about the guy. It didn’t seem like the three members put forth an effort to integrate Carlo into the group and change his behavior.
These types of incidents led to an increase in discord within the team and complicated emotions. Any joy or team-building that could have transpired was overshadowed by a high amount of negative energy. The team members had to face the challenges of the challenge and the stress triggered by their actions.
4. Join the team.
While specific teams were disqualified throughout the course (e.g., losing track and later found injuries or illnesses), Many teams decided to finish the race due to personal reasons as well as a desire to support each other. For me, this was the most valuable lesson I learned from Eco-Challenge. Although it was exciting to watch, for instance, that the French team France got to the top of the few, however, it was the naive teams that impressed me the most. They did not let the many challenges and difficulties they had to face diminish their enthusiasm. This included having a team member carry one’s shoulders in times of need because their trench foot was extremely severe. It is also remarkable that these teams weren’t trying to be the top team at the top of the competition. The goal of the team was for the entire group, all four of them, to finish the race in a group, even if it took them 12 days.
5. Maintain a sense of humor even when everything appears to be lost.
Teams that had an attitude of humor could handle the harsh conditions they had to face. Even though they were suffering from diarrhea, dehydration, trench foot, sprains and hunger, and leeches that were aggressive, however, they maintained an attitude of humor. The team members were able to find humor within their own situations, making jokes. Humour helped relieve the stress they felt that was sometimes stressful.
6. Be proud of your achievements, no matter how they may be small.
Teams celebrated the small wins during the journey, like climbing to the summit of a mountain following an exhausting climb or making it through white-water rapids without capsizes. Celebrations created the motivation and energy for the team to take on the next obstacle.
7. Help one another out in good and bad times.
If a team member fell ill or was injured, other members of the team tended to the person physically (carrying extra equipment) or emotionally (words to encourage). Furthermore, team members embraced each other when a team member had a challenging day. The teams that were successful did not speak negatively about injured or sick members. Teams that were not functioning correctly, however, did not offer assistance to the members who required it. This meant that it was much more difficult for these teams to recover their enthusiasm, sense of the common goal, and collective energy.
Important to note was the shared leadership within the well-functioning teams. Though each team was led by an appointed leader, the leadership was shared at the appropriate time. A prime example was that one of the team’s leaders, a man in his 50s with several years of experience in Eco-Challenge and Eco-Challenge, was unable to walk due to extreme trench foot. The group members joined together around the leader, sharing their leader’s role. Although the team was required to pull out of the race due to the severity of the condition of their leader, however, they fought to the final moment.
The leadership of a functioning team is not an absolute dictatorship. The leadership role must be shared. When put under pressure, it’s fantastic to see how leadership is derived from the team’s members.
The lessons that were learned from Eco-Challenge are applicable to businesses: how they learn, collaborate, and share leadership, produce results, and then celebrate. The team of France was one of the top finishers of the race, which can be described as a high-performance team. The team members were united in a common goal, well-organized and prepared, devoted to each other, looked out for each other, and had fun (although they were determined to take the win).
For the teams who didn’t take part in the race solely to win instead of having the thrill of challenging themselves to the limit and sharing the satisfaction of having completed this journey with one another, Eco-Challenge proved to be the ultimate test.
Here are five questions to help with group reflection:
1. Can we help bring happiness to the workplace in a workplace where smiles and laughter are the norms?
2. What can we do to instill an intense sense of dedication to one another, not just as regards the accomplishment of our tasks but also in the process of learning and our personal development and growth?
3. Related to the second question is the question of how can we start to demonstrate each other a sense of compassion, particularly during situations of stress and crises (a characteristic of high-performing teams)?
4. What do we do to find out the core values of our work with regard to the value we bring to our citizens and break free from the treadmill of “doing” and enter the area of “being?” Then how can this contribute to our ability to master the balance of our personal and professional lives?
5. From this, what can we do with the process of translating it into organizational and team learning and then creating new information which can be disseminated across our teams?
James Taggart has been a student of leadership for more than 15 years. He has also spent the last ten years focusing on working on the development of leadership as well as organizational learning and team building. As a thought leader, he has led and initiated numerous change management initiatives. He also worked as an economist for several years conducting applied research into the labor market, conducting research on policy in the fields of science, technology, innovation, and technology, as well as initiating projects that focus on competitiveness in the industrial sector.
In addition to his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at The University of New Brunswick, Jim has an executive master’s degree from Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada. His master’s thesis dealt with the subject of sharing leadership.