3 Things Wilderness Survival Training Taught Me About Good Leadership

Oct 16, 2018 1 Min Read



Imagine being left in the wilderness completely on your own with only your wits to survive.


On the first day, you are taught how to make a shelter and then your tent is taken away.  The next day, you learn how to weave a grass mat and your sleeping bag is taken from you.

By the end of two weeks, you have nothing that you walked into the bush with besides the clothes on your back.

Tom Brown Jr is America’s most acclaimed tracker and Wilderness Survival expert who himself was trained by an Apache elder named Stalking Wolf.

I was incredibly fortunate to learn from him over a 10-year period how to survive in the wilderness, with no manufactured tools in most cases, tapping into skills passed from generation to generation.

In this world of digital technology and artificial intelligence, many leaders are yearning for ways to manage the landscape forward into uncharted territory.  

Here are the insights leaders can rely on in uncertain times.

More first-hand insights than any report 

At university, I became an adventure guide leading canoeing, backpacking, white-water rafting and rock climbing trips. I read every survival book I could get my hands on.

After spending one hour being taught in the bush on my hands and knees, I quickly realised that things learnt in books were no match for what you can learn from first-hand experience.  

Nothing you could read can capture the feeling of accomplishment you get when you rub sticks together to make fire or when you follow an animal track that leads you to a deer that is taking a drink of water from a stream.

Too many leaders get caught up in reporting and data that chains them to their desk.  

Understanding data is important, however without spending time listening to and observing your people, it is hard to pick up on the important things that the data will not tell you.  

By simply watching staff implement a new process, you will notice the things that slow them down or frustrate them that were not identified during the planning stage.

To be able to keep a competitive advantage, you need to spend time gathering insights first-hand and working with your people to identify shortcuts or hacks to make things happen – not just reading key performance indicator (KPI) dashboards and reports.

Identify Your Sacred Order

Tribes around the world follow and pass on a universal set of guidelines that allow them to survive in any environment.

The Sacred Order identifies a hierarchy that is needed in order to survive:  Shelter, Water, Fire, and Food.

So in any wilderness survival situation the first thing you find and create is shelter from the weather.

Then drinkable water is the next priority, then fire for warmth, cooking and making tools and then the lowest priority is food.

Regardless of the environment native people would not break this hierarchy.

Leaders need to map the Sacred Order for their business.

It’s important to prioritise what is needed to ensure the right culture can be built to enable people to perform.

Too often complex strategic plans are vague and do not provide staff with how to prioritise their ever expanding workload which results in lost performance and frustration.

Individually, you need to identify your Sacred Order of what is important and how you will lead at work and at home.

I have coached many CEO’s who have mixed their Order up.

Many of them lost their marriage, relationship with their children and their health because they did not prioritise what and how they were going to achieve their goals.


Seek wisdom of elders 

The stand up lean-to shelters you see in the movies will not keep you warm or dry.  

Native people teach how to make a debris hut, which is a small framework of branches that are interwoven and covered in leaves or plants that you crawl into.

When I built my first shelter, Tom Brown Jr walked by and asked if I thought the amount of leaves were enough.  

Spending the past two hours building a half-metre thick shelter led me to confidently say ‘yes’.

I realised my mistake when I woke shivering from the cold at 2am because there was not enough debris or insulation on my shelter.  

Having ignored the wisdom from an elder, or someone who has knowledge that you can learn from is often a mistake that many leaders make.  

Most chief executive officers know it can be isolating at the top.

However, having a number of elders or advisors that you can seek impartial and wise advice from can help you become a better leader and see the things that you don’t.

The next time you are faced with a challenge, remember these ancient wilderness survival principles that leaders have used since the dawn of time.


Scott Stein is a leadership pathfinder who has helped thousands of leaders to implement fast-track strategies that improve results. He is a speaker and author of Leadership Hacks:  Clever shortcuts to boost your impact and results (Wiley). To get in touch with him, send an email to editor@leaderonomics.com.


Prefer an e-mag reading experience? This article is also available in our 13th October, 2018 digital issue. Access our digital issues here.

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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