How Hiking in China Taught Me to Be a Servant Leader

Cassie Wallace
19/03/2020
I used to be a tour leader and at times I felt guilty that I was a nomad with no fixed address, no career prospects and no possessions while I carelessly travelled across the world and rarely called my mother to say hi.

But when I look back, I feel immensely privileged this was my introduction to leadership because I draw upon this experience every day as Head of Software Development at Kiandra.

Twelve people, jet lagged, culture shocked and standing at the base of the Great Wall of China.

I’m the tour leader so it’s my job to get the group to the other end of our 5-hours hike before nightfall so we can meet the van to take us back to Beijing. Any person who has seen a picture of the Great Wall would have registered that it’s built on terrain of rugged, rocky, rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. It’s made of crumbling rocks, so plenty of drinking water and suitable footwear and levels of fitness were required. Despite constant reminders, some people didn’t observe this advice.

Now one thing to get straight before any good Great Wall story, is that it’s not the only manmade structure which can be observed from space. This would always be raised as a conversation topic to which I’d respond in various tones of derision, ‘There are 8 lane highways made of concrete and carving across entire continents. I suspect they are entirely more visible than this crumbling structure made from the same stone which surrounds it.’ Emphasis on ‘entirely’. Greg (as we shall call him) refuted this vehemently and claimed he heard the words out of Neil Armstrong himself. I knew Greg would soon be begging for mercy so I dropped it.

As the hike progresses the volumes of tourists and locals would abate and our group would be one of only a few hikers doing the longer section. To me this was magical. Solitude, exceptional scenery, the thrill of truly experiencing a monumental wonder, being in the outdoors performing a physical pursuit. What a dream. 

As we progress, the temperature rises, water storages deplete, shoes start to irritate, heart rates soar, and quadriceps burn. This is when things start to look like a failing IT project. When are we going to finish? You never told us there were would be so many steps! You’re going too fast for us! This isn’t what I paid for!

Project Managing the Great Wall of China 

The group comprised fast and slow, fit and unfit, prepared and ill-prepared, pleasant and beastly so I had to have a plan. We were only going to finish as fast as the slowest person (Greg) and I pledged that everyone would have an amazing experience. So I’d break the group up. The fast could go ahead by two towers only. Slower ones would walk at their pace, with me as the water carrier, pushing or pulling up stone steps, providing moral support, tending to sprains, carrying shoes and pretending that I too was struggling and that in no way should they feel responsible for holding up the entire group.

As we’d reach the waiting sprinters, the slow group could go ahead while I gave a history lesson or regaled them with copious and mostly true facts about the Wall. This relay would work for a few hours until frustrations started to air. Greg was increasingly agitated because he was genuinely struggling with the physical assault on his body. He started needing to break the hike into milestones in his mind to keep him going. How long until the next tower, how many steps to the top, how many more towers, does it get much harder than this? I had to have patience, answers to his questions and water. I would deliver inspirational quotes like, “it’s not easy but it’s doable”. This became an in-joke with the group where for every hike they’d ask if it was more doable or less doable than the Great Wall. You know there is a good bond in a group when they adopt a lexicon borne from a shared experience. 

Sharing knowledge to bring out the best in people

When we’d periodically regroup I’d prepare everyone for the next day. I found out early as a tour leader that people don’t like surprises when they are out of their comfort zone. They want to be prepared with the right camera lens, playlist, clothing, number of stolen bread rolls from the breakfast buffet and to structure the day in their mind. Often I’d have to repeat it a few times but the more they were prepared, the better they could cope with the challenge ahead.

A tip for future tour leaders – never underestimate how much detail people need. A lady on one of my trips was constantly asking about travel direction, seat configuration and the position of the sun. So much incessant nagging about these meaningless facts. I so desperately wanted to shout out “I can tell you the history of the Ming Dynasty or the role of eunuchs in dynastic court life, but all you want to know is that we are travelling south on a train while the sun will be on the right, and you will be in a double seat!” Humbly I’ll admit I later learned she had hearing difficulties and wanted to sit in the best spot to enjoy the view but also hear what I had to say about the Ming Dynasty or eunuchs. 

Greg and the group successfully made it to the end. I must say despite the trials and tribulations I’m proud of the comradery the group built. A shared experience of helping each other and experiencing a true marvel generated an energy that I’ll never forget and rarely have experienced since. 

So, how has this helped me be a leader? 
 
  • Listen out for repeated phrases or colloquialisms with your teams. It means they’re listening, involved and adopting team norms. This is great for team culture. 
  • Just because you ask, tell, encourage or threaten, doesn’t mean people will turn up with the right footwear. Like getting a team of software engineers to complete their timesheets you need to be consistent, repeat yourself and find multiple ways to get a message across. 
  • Being part of the struggle is better for the group than being up front, setting an unrealistic pace. I like to sit with my teams and not in an office. I get involved in projects and I do the work myself when the team needs it. 
  • Meeting people’s needs involves anticipating them in advance and being willing to acknowledge when you get it wrong. Such as realising why someone asks annoying questions is because they want to understand what you have to say. 
  • And finally, even when faced with a challenge literally the scale of the Great Wall of China – there is a way to the end. Every day I navigate challenges of varying degrees and when it seems insurmountable I remember that even Greg made it over the wall. 


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