Front Line Heroes – Chapter Thirteen/Go Live with the Whales…Part Two

Who knew Patagonia had Pink Flamingos?

Prior to this trip, I thought flamingos only came in plastic.  Turns out they grace the lakes and blue lagoons of Patagonia.  We saw hundreds.

In Chicago, both at work and in my personal life, my life is planned out. It is controlled, or at least that is the illusion.  I wake up and stumble to make the coffee and feed the dog.  Off to exercise and then back to the house.  Breakfast, shower, and go to the office.  I make calls, go to meetings, and drive around.  Then I come home and run the dog.  Dinner with my wife, Leslie, after which comes an hour or work and maybe even focusing on this book.  So it goes in different variations day after day.

During the Patagonia trip, a valuable lesson was that there was no controlling things – and certainly not by me.  What happened just happened.  Forty mile-per-hour winds were routine, but the winds came on some days and not on others.  In Patagonia, the most powerful thing to do was choose your reactions to events, not try to control the events themselves.  That is an insight worthy of taking into my life.  How about yours?

Who knew I can milk cows better than a Gaucho?

The gauchos were impressed. But then, what does a gaucho know about milking anyway?  Gauchos are Argentinean cowboys, and they wear Wyatt Earp hats and serapes.  My grip on the cow’s udder so impressed these gauchos that they made my Apprentice Gaucho Level Uno.  This was the high point of my trip.

Another profound benefit of getting away is mixing it up with people whom you typically would not be surrounded by.  This is different from my vacations where I am hanging out with folks from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.

On the Patagonian expedition, my group ate together, hiked together, and traveled together in small vans.  Believe me, there was diversity among us.  There were a bunch of burly men from Alaska who had all been friends for more than 20 years.  One worked the North Slope of Alaska.  He was outdoor-knowledgeable and tough.  From what I could see, he slept with polar bears.  I felt very sorry for those bears.  Gertrude was from New York.  Single and aloof, she was a good hiker who wanted to be an artist.  She had to have come from money.  Other members of our group were Richard, a photographer; Big Trevor, the stoic; and Martin, our always vigilant, incredibly knowledgeable and skillful mountain guide.

Who knew Icebergs are as blue as the interiors of Glaciers?

It is a deep, knock-your-socks-off cobalt blue that gets under your skin and alters you.

So, the Chilean earthquake happened.  This was at the end of February 2010.  Santiago and its surrounding areas went through a level 8.8 earthquake that killed 562 people.

For us tourists, we were going home and – in the next second – we were not going home.  We then had to figure out how the heck we were going to get home.  Rolling with the punches was the best plan.  Where will we spend the night?  we wondered.  We shall see.  Where do we cross back to Argentina?  We shall see.  Will American Airlines accept our reservations?  We shall see.

Who know a Tsunami might have come through the front door?

A possible tsunami was the biggest concern the hotel clerk had at the time of the Chilean earthquake.

At four thirty a.m., I walked into the lobby and the hotel clerk was babbling incoherently as he stared into the TV.  Our hotel fronted the ocean, and he thought a tidal wave was imminent.  I thought, the airport is on higher ground and I have a flight to catch.  The taxi came screaming up, and we fled into the darkness.

The city was serenely quiet as we drove to the airport.  It was a strange contrast to the pandemonium confronting us over the radio.  Newscasters and DJ’s talked non-stop about the disaster, but they knew nothing other than a massive earthquake had just engulfed Northern Chile.

The airport was choked with people standing in lines.  Here was where being a business executive came in handy: I found myself absolutely focused.  I walked up to the front of the line and asked the attendant what to do.  She told me to return to the hotel and wait for instructions.  I knew, at that point, that we were not going home any time soon.

Back at the hotel, I was still the only one up.  It was now six a.m.  I tried to track down our guide, Martin, who was scheduled to leave for home in a bus.  We had spent the night before saying goodbye to him.  Martin was not staying at our hotel, and no one knew where he was.  The next several hours were spent briefing each member of the group as he or she awoke and came down for breakfast.

People deal to the fact that their futures have changed in very different ways.  Gertrude became scared, bordering on hysterics, and immediately got on the phone with her sister from the States.  Two of the burly boys took it in stride – no big deal.  The third, however, became frantic, as he was scheduled to go to Europe the next day with his wife.

Martin, our guide, showed up at ten a.m. and watched over us.  He and REI, the tour company, got us out of Chile and into Buenos Aires.  This was no small feat given that all the other tourists trapped in Chile had the same idea.  Martin demonstrated being responsible for us and taking that responsibility quite seriously.  He and REI worked tirelessly to get us out.  They swung into action both from Argentina and the United States, working with the airlines to get us from Bariloche to Buenos Aires and then beyond.  We had partners and felt supported.  From a business perspective, the way REI acted in this tumultuous time made me a raving fan.

Who knew my wife can create airplane seats out of thin air?

I had no idea she was even a travel agent, let alone a masterful one.

I called her early on at our home in Chicago, wanting to make sure she knew I was all right.  Leslie became a focused maniac as only Leslie can.  She dove into action.  She worked for hours with American Airlines and, against all odds, got me out sooner than later – three days after the earthquake, I was back in Chicago, with realizations and experiences I would not soon forget.

Sharpening the Saw

To illuminate the point of this chapter, let’s take the classic Steven Covey tale.

We have a wood-chopper who is from the southern part of Lithuania.  (This made-up tidbit is totally irrelevant).  In the story, the lumberjack is sawing away and noticing that he is accomplishing less than he used to.  So, like the good Lithuanian Lumberjack that he is, he saws harder.  However, the harder he saws, the more he dulls the blade.  But he is blind to what is happening.  This well-intentioned, but rather dull lumberjack just keeps sawing harder and accomplishing less.  It was a truly dullicious situation.  (That was a pun.)  Does this situation sound familiar?

For business people, working harder and producing less is a common pitfall.  What’s missing for the lumberjack is the realization that his saw needs to be sharpened in order to keep up his level of productivity.  Yet, given how he thinks, there would be no time for sharpening because he is so driven to produce.  So he continues to saw, even though he might find himself getting board in the process. (Sorry, another pun.)

I find that when my own saw gets dull, getting away – really getting away – has been a way to sharpen and refocus.  New ideas and vistas open up in the process of truly leaving my routine behind.  New perspectives appear that bless me with fresh creativity and vigor.

This sound spiritual and metaphysical, and while I would love to go there because it would make me look like a guru or Gandhi or something (and I love the turban and loincloth look, especially when bare chests are involved), this getting away mandate is not complicated.  In fact, it is simple; get yourself stimulated.

Go to Antarctica.  CEO Noah did this.

Climb Kilimanjaro.  That is what CEO Susie did.

Help Haiti recover.  Executive Judy did that.

Rebuild New Orleans.  Senior Vice President Thaddeus did that.

Just make sure that you are awake to the miracle of this planet.  It’s good for your business, and it is good for you.