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How lessons from an adventure race apply to government leaders

Yvonne Camus was part of a four-person Canadian team that completed the 2000 Eco-challenge, a 300-mile adventure race, in Borneo. Camus wove her extensive experience in business with the lessons she learned doing the adventure race into a speech she gave at the International City/County Management Association conference. 

Discovering the challenge of improvement

Camus described the intense training she underwent while preparing for the race, while also balancing high-level executive responsibilities and being the single parent of two boys. Once, when she was telling her coach how spent she was physically and emotionally from balancing everything, he told her that out of every 10 workouts, eight will be unremarkable, one will be amazing and one will be "crap." He reminded Camus to, on those bad days, give herself credit for showing up. We tend to pause and examine our potential on the bad days, said Camus, but she encouraged attendees to focus just as much on the days when they impress themselves. 

Look at problems from a different angle

Camus' team's first leg of the race involved taking off from the shore and traveling to a checkpoint in the water in boats made by the local Malaysian people. Some of the boats immediately sank, relegating their teams to either a) repairing the boats themselves or b) disqualifying themselves from the race. Camus' team's boat was not one of those boats. The team had also brought along a large pink sail to attach to the boat. Showing a picture of the boat, Camus pointed out two things. First, she asked the audience if they noticed that her team was not rowing. They didn't have to row because the sail was helping them make progress and take advantage of the wind. The takeaway? The team had found a way to make itself faster without making its members work harder. Other teams complained that Camus' team was cheating, but race creator Mark Burnett commended them on their ingenuity. 

Camus also pointed out that -- despite the team's creativity in finding a way to move faster without working harder -- she is seen in the picture bailing water. Their boat didn't sink, but it had definite challenges, a situation local government leaders can relate to.

People on sailboat
Camus bailing water on her team's boat

Characteristics of successful teams

Camus remarked about three characteristics of successful teams that helped the teams that completed the Eco-challenge and can also help local governments thrive.

Character - As the pandemic has shown, it is critical to have the character (and compassion) to make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Competency - A great team is made up of people with unique competencies, said Camus. "If two people on the team think alike, one isn't necessary," she said.

Commitment - Teams need people who keep pushing forward when the fun is over. In Camus' case, the "fun being over" included leeches, blisters, a broken wrist hours into the race, rappelling down a sheer cliff, sleep deprivation and being covered with bat excrement.

Figure out how to direct your energy

Teams participating in the Eco-challenge had to figure out how to problem-solve and how to deal with high emotions. "I saw a team argue about whether they had a problem or not," said Camus. She and her team made a vow not to throw verbal "heat-seeking missiles" into their discussions and  learned to ask themselves, "How do we improve this situation right now?" Once they made a decision, their approach was "all hands on deck."

As any business expert can attest, reminded Camus, "An A-level idea with a B-level execution has far less success than a B-level idea with an A-level execution."

Encouragement matters more than we know

In 2000, digital communication was not what it is now (and Borneo is also extremely remote).

Mark Burnett set up a rudimentary way for emails to be forwarded to the race participants. 

Camus talked about how she felt when she was in the medical tent for a mandatory checkup -- she and her team were exceptionally beaten up by this point by the experience.

A staff member handed them reams of paper. She figured it was more waivers, but it was 300 emails.

One, from her dad, who had never sent Camus an email before and had to travel to the local library to do so, said, "I am so proud of you."

"We weren't at the finish line. We'd been talking about quitting ... and he was proud of me. We were tired and spent; we wanted it to be over. All it took were words of encouragement from people who cared to make us stand up and go beyond where we would have stopped."

Rather than sleeping, she and her team had been refueled by the supportive emails.

"It's not performance reviews that will change things, it's encouraging people," Camus reminded the city managers and other local government professionals attending the conference.

Camus also remarked on the role of optimism in success: "Energy follows thought; we move toward, but never beyond, what we can imagine."

It's the pebbles that will bring you down, not the mountains

As her presentation came to a close, Camus said that our options when things are horrible are to either talk ourselves into it or out of it.

"You trip over pebbles, not mountains," she said. Although the team had trained extensively to ride mountain bikes hundreds of miles and to navigate the open ocean, it was "blisters that brought us to a crawl," said Camus, pointing out that blisters start with a grain of sand.

"Remember a time when you've impressed yourself, and when you're crisis-proofing your teams, extend that same graciousness to others. Who are they when they are at their best?"

"When you can visualize success, great things happen twice, first in the theater of your own mind and then in reality."

Minor complications can distract us from what matters, said Camus. Being successful involves overcoming those minor frustrations, aligning with each other and moving forward.

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Paula Kiger edits ICMA SmartBrief and other government and nonprofit sector newsletters. She also co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and as @biggreenpen on Twitter.