Five things I learned about teamwork from tracking lions in Africa

200My partner and I just returned from a month in Zambia. We spent most of our time in bush camps in North Luangwa and Kafue National Parks, where we had the opportunity to track lions on foot. This was a life-defining experience. We slept in bamboo huts and listened to the big cats calling in the dark. We tracked a pride of lions from a buffalo kill through pathless wilderness, encountering them unexpectedly and holding our breath as they sprang roaring through the trees. At one point, we were charged by a bull hippo and ran for our lives, saved by a warning shot from Justin, our scout, who stood his ground. We spents our nights about campfires in the bush, sipping whiskey from tin cups and feeling the thrum of nature about us.

I don’t believe I’ve ever felt more present and alive than when walking with small groups of people in the African wilderness. The experience is at once magnificently beautiful and incredibly edgy. At one moment you might be feeling isolated, peaceful, and relaxed. The next moment you encounter a pride of lions, some elephants, or a herd of buffalo and the situation changes. Under these circumstances, people instinctively work as a team. I learned five lessons about teamwork from my experience tracking lions in Zambia that cast light on what is required for the best team environments.

1. Collaboration

From the moment your group leaves the safety of the bush camp, you are working as a team. Your guide gives you strict instructions on how to collaborate in the bush. We walked in single file. The scout, armed with a hunting rile, walked at the head of the group with the guide. Often we had a trainee scout with us, who took the rear. We were told that when we came across lions or any other large animals, we were to pull together in a group. If charged by a lion, we were to huddle closely together, make ourselves look as big as possible, and yell. Never, under any circumstances, should we break from the group and run. Lions typically don’t prey on human beings, but present them with a lone, fast-moving object, and they become like a house cat with a mouse. One of our guides told us a story about a young Spanish woman he’d once taken on a bush walk. Her English wasn’t very good – perhaps she failed to understand the instructions – but when they encountered lions she panicked, broke from the group, and ran. The lion immediately went after her and the scout was forced to shoot it dead.

Failing to collaborate in the wild is dangerous for the whole group. Implicitly, the members of the group must trust one another to work as a team. Collaboration and trust go hand in hand in this environment. It is not safe to go out in the bush unless people can trust one another to collaborate.

2. Trust

252Trust is a second essential condition for effective teamwork in the bush. The members of the group need to trust each other to act responsibly and to pull together when required. They also need to trust themselves to keep cool and follow instructions. Lose your head in the heat of the moment and it may not be the only thing you lose. One feels a profound sense of responsibility walking in the bush, underpinned by an awareness that ‘we are all in this together’.

In addition to trusting oneself and the other members of one’s team, one needs to trust the armed scout to stand their ground in dangerous situations. The scout is the only person in the group with a rifle. If they lose their nerve and, say, scoot up a tree, there is a good chance that people will get hurt. We were reminded of how much we depended on our scout on our first day walking in North Luangwa Park. We were watching a hippo lounging in a lagoon when it rose out of the water and charged. Our guide yelled: ‘Run!’ We took off after him into the bush. Fortunately, Justin, our scout, kept his cool. I glanced back to see him fire a shot into the ground just ahead of the charging hippo as it burst from the lagoon. It took fright and motored off across the savanna at an incredible pace. Watching it go, I realised that we’d had no chance of outrunning it. If not for Justin, we’d have been killed.

While teams in the workplace rarely contend with certain death, they require trust in order to work in an agile and adaptive manner. Agile teams self-organise by autonomously selecting chunks of work to be completed within agreed time-frames. Without a leader managing the workflow, it is up to team members themselves to ensure the work gets done. Each member of the team needs to be able to trust the others to deliver on their responsibilities in order to believe in the effectiveness of the team as a unit. Without this trust, team morale suffers, commitment to the work declines, and the team will ultimately fail to function.

3. Ownership

Ownership is implicit in collaborative teams bonded by trust. Team members assume ownership by being ready to take responsibility for the team. This means ready to play a leadership role when required.

229I assumed ownership one day on a bush walk in Kafue National Park. We had been tracking a pride of lions from a grisly buffalo kill. The tracks led back along the river under some magnificent trees, and as we walked, the group’s attention was momentarily captured by a bird in the branches above. I must confess that I have little interest in birds, no matter how large and colourful they are. However, I found I was, for some reason, deeply interested in the yellow log that lay in the clearing ahead of us. When the log rolled over, revealing a paw, I realised why.

‘Lions!’, I hissed. Immediately, the clearing exploded into life. An adult male lion burst up and roared, shielding the retreat of three females that dashed into the bush. Then he was gone as well.

Under the circumstances, I could hardly have been expected to stay silent. But I was pleased afterwards to have taken reponsibility for the well-being of the team, effectively playing the role of spotter and scout. In agile teams, everyone is ready to step up and lead when the situation demands. This is what it means to take ownership.

4. Resourcefulness

Resourcefulness involves thinking laterally about the tools and means required to get a job done. It is often associated with ownership, in the sense that people who take ownership of a task tend to be resourceful in completing it. When other vital signs of teamwork are low, and there is a lack of collaboration, trust, and ownership in the group, people may follow the instructions they have been given, but they don’t think outside the box, and they are easily confounded by upsets. Resourceful people, on the other hand, are always experimenting with new ways of doing things, and they are rarely stumped when something prevents them from moving ahead.

Resourceful people are natural innovators. These are the best kind of people to have on a collaborative team.

I remember talking to some fellow travellers about my work on innovation one night about the campfire, and remarking that the topic seemed out of place in the bush. The guide pointed out that this was not true. People who survive in remote locations are resourceful as a matter of necessity. If a tool breaks or the material required to complete a job is missing, the local people find some other way of doing things. Life in the bush promotes an abundance mentality. Every tree and plant has some use-value. A tall tree is not simply a tree: it can be a hide for watching animals, or material for a house or canoe, or else the bark can be used as medicine. One day on a walk, our trainee scout, Julian, demonstrated how the local people light a fire using two sticks, a leaf, a nut, and some hippo dung. In Julian’s tribe, the young men must demonstrate that they are capable of lighting a fire before they are allowed to get married, which is an incentive to be resourceful.

5. Process

267The final thing I learned from tracking lions in Zambia is the value of process. Process is particularly important for teams that are operating under conditions of uncertainty. In uncertain conditions, situations can change rapidly, and without a clear sense of process, it is easy for the team to become lost and confused. In our bushwalks in Zambia, we maintained a sense of process with respect to how to behave if threatened by animals, as well as a sense of the process of the walks themselves. Each walk was a set number of hours. We would follow the guide’s instructions at all times. Even if we didn’t see anything on the walk, we would return to camp at the set hour and consider it time well spent.

Process is valuable for collaborative teams in workplace environments. When a team is tackling a complex task, it helps to have a clear sense of the process that is being followed. This is one reason why practices like design thinking, agile/scrum, and lean startup method have become so popular in recent years. By following these kinds of processes, teams are able to monitor how they are moving through the work irrespective of how the work itself is going. The team might reach the end of the process and acknowledge that it has failed to complete the task. Nevertheless, by completing the process, they are able to discern forward momentum. Ideally, at this point, the team will apply resourcefulness and try a different approach for the next iteration of the work.

Collaboration, trust, ownership, resourcefulness, and an insistence on process are key attributes of effective teams. This is what I learned from tracking lions in Africa.


This is cross-posted from my new blog, Just warming up in the new domain – I’d love to know what you think!

Who is Foucault’s Heidegger? An introduction to transformative philosophy


A new species of philosopher is appearing: I venture to baptize these philosophers with a name not without danger in it. As I divine them, as they let themselves be divined – for it pertains to their nature to want to remain a riddle in some respects – these philosophers of the future might rightly, but perhaps also wrongly, be described as attempters. This name itself is in the end only an attempt and, if you will, a temptation.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger (1888-1976) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984) are two of the most important philosophers in the history of twentieth century European thought. There is clearly much that divides them. Heidegger devoted his life to a single question, the question of being. Foucault was mercurial in the transformability of his questions, which ranged from madness, literature, discourse and knowledge, to power, sexuality, ethics and truth (roughly in this order). Heidegger was a political conservative – notoriously, a member of the Nazi Party through the 1930s and until the end of the war. Insofar as Foucault can be positioned anywhere on the political spectrum, he is most accurately associated with the anarchist left. Heidegger was a thinker of primordial origins and world-historical recommencements, and saw the present as a unique moment in time in which history has come to an end and stands the chance of beginning anew. Foucault defended a Nietzschean genealogical approach to history that emphasizes radical historical breaks while refusing to assume that the present is any more significant than yesterday or tomorrow.

Given these and other differences, it is hard, on the face of it, to see how Foucault and Heidegger might be related in the manner suggested by the title of this post. It seems improbable that there would be any relationship between these philosophers at all. The fact remains, however, that in his final interview, in 1984, Foucault claimed that Heidegger was an ‘essential philosopher’ for his work. This statement took Foucault scholarship by surprise. Foucault is usually seen as France’s primary Nietzschean export. While Foucault concedes that Nietzsche was ultimately the most important philosopher for his work, he insists that his ‘whole philosophical development’ was determined by his reading of Heidegger. Foucault’s final remarks on Heidegger have provoked much disagreement among readers of Foucault. Many readers prefer to ignore these remarks entirely. Those relatively few attempts to productively engage the question of Foucault’s debt to Heidegger have produced little by way of conclusion and much in the manner of debate.

This post will not attempt to close these debates. Rather, it seeks to place them on a new footing. Foucault and Heidegger’s work, I argue, reflects a common vision of philosophy as a transformative exercise. To understand Foucault’s debt to Heidegger, we need to read these philosophers on the level of transformative practice. [Read more…]

Spinoza in principle: ethics, affect, and friendship

Spinoza_3One hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a famous philosopher, oft-quoted and respected, if notorious for his relationship with the authorities of his time. It is unclear why he fell out of fashion. We may have seen Spinoza’s statue in Amsterdam, or heard his name mentioned by another philosopher, but of Spinoza himself, we know nothing. This is unfortunate seeing as Spinoza is one of the most practical and relevant philosophers there is. There are all sorts of ways that we can apply Spinoza’s philosophy today. Henri Bergson, writing in the early 20th century, saw Spinoza as a philosopher of intuition. The Italian political theorist Antonio Negri argues that Spinoza is the key to understanding globalization and the postmodern age.

This post does not explore the work of these thinkers. I want to focus on Spinoza himself.

oude_kerk_amsterdamSpinoza was the son of a Portuguese merchant who had fled to Amsterdam with his family to escape the Catholic Inquisition. Spinoza senior couldn’t have picked a better place to have moved the family business. It was the height of the Dutch Golden Age and Amsterdam was the trading capital of the world. Amsterdam, moreover, was an excellent spot for Spinoza to begin a philosophical education. Through the seventeenth century, the liberal climate of Amsterdam drew a hoard of political and religious refugees from other parts of Europe, stimulating a lively intellectual culture. Strolling through Dam Square, Spinoza would have rubbed shoulders with French Huguenots, German Anabaptists, Spanish heretics, and Scottish freethinkers amidst the hustle and bustle of the markets and trade. Spinoza formed the principles of his philosophy long before he considered himself a philosopher, as a young man on the streets of Amsterdam.

[Read more…]

You little genius! How to cultivate your creative gifts


Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will grow up believing it is stupid. — Albert Einstein

‘What is your genius?’ I’d like you to reflect on this for a moment. I find that when I ask people this question, they often don’t know what to say. The G-word can stop us in our tracks. Years ago, when I was first asked: What is your genius? I thought: ‘Genius? What genius? I’m just a guy’.

I am just a guy. But I have come to see that everyone is touched by genius. Perhaps it is just a gentle caress. Perhaps your genius lies in something so uncommon that you’ll have to search the world before you find the opportunity to express it. There may be years of toil, of wanderings near and far, a host of grand adventures in your path before you finally discover your potential. But there is genius in you, waiting to be discovered. This post will explain how to find it.

If everyone is a genius, why is the world so messed up? For creatures who have the capacity for genius, we do a brilliant job of being dumb. Clearly, we are not, at this point in history, living up to our potential. But this is not surprising, since we only put a fraction of the work into cultivating our genius that we could. We doubt ourselves (‘Genius, what genius?’). We aim low (an easy trap to fall into, since that’s where most people are playing). Once we’re out of the education system, few people bother to encourage us to find our inner genius. Can you imagine your boss telling you to find that rare and special thing that makes you great and cultivate it? Not going to happen (‘Get back to work!’). We are the products of cookie-cutter education systems, of ‘knuckle-down-and-conform’ economies, of shallow, hyper-mediated, cultural systems that celebrate cannibalization and incremental innovation over true disruption (Lady Gaga is the incremental innovation of Madonna; the latest superhero blockbuster is the cannibalization of every superhero trope that has come before). Given this, it’s no surprise that we forsake our deeper talent. Really, why should we bother to look for brilliance in ourselves when society as a whole is geared for averageness? Why stick your head up over the edge of the trench? You’ll only get it blown off.

What an appalling waste of talent. Don’t give up on yourself like this. Find that rare and special thing that you do extraordinarily well and make it central to your life. Here’s how you can do it.

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Heidegger in Silicon Valley: technology and the hacker way

‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech luminary Marc Andreessen declared in 2009, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of creative destruction. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Reconfiguring the relationships between goods, consumers, and service-providers, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains, and estate agents. Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for instance (recipient of $112 million in funding from Andreessen-Horowitz in 2011). Andreessen claims:

Airbnb  makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.

An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just as a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, creating a functional machine, social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee. This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.

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Hooked on a feeling: how a chance encounter can change your life

I met a man named AJ Emmanuel as I was walking down the main street of my town. AJ was enlisting supporters for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He spotted me coming from a distance and lured me in with a parody of my loping stride. By the time we met, I was laughing and he was laughing too.

‘You are wasting your time with me!’ I told him. I explained how my partner and I give a set amount of money each month to a rolling roster of aid organizations. The UNHCR was somewhere on the list. ‘A good conversation is never a waste of time’, AJ replied. It was a sunny day and I was out for a walk – why not take the opportunity to chat?

I liked AJ immediately. He was confident and upbeat. There was mischief in his eyes, but seriousness, too – a tone of gravity underlying everything that he said. I sensed that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit – a street philosopher, of sorts – a man who had seen suffering enough to know that life has no guarantees, yet who is wise enough to appreciate that the only appropriate response is to celebrate each moment.

[Read more…]

Live from the heart: cultivate your powers and unleash your whole person

leonardo-vitruvian-man-bLeonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’. His life is a testament to human creativity. Over six decades of creative activity, Leonardo showcased gifts as a painter, sculptor, scientist, anatomist, architect, engineer, inventor, botanist, and musician. His contributions are remarkable for their consistent brilliance. Leonardo’s paintings, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are touchstones for the history of Western art. In his sketchbooks and journals, Leonardo developed a new visual language for representing bodies and surfaces, which fed into his painting and gave his figures an unprecedented realism. Leonardo’s studies of the natural world made a decisive contribution to the embryonic sciences of anatomy, hydrodynamics and physics. His architectural and engineering designs included bridges, irrigation projects, villas and cathedrals. His notebooks brim over with fantastic inventions, including diving equipment, armoured cars, flying machines, musical instruments and more.

As a cultural figure, Leonardo da Vinci sets a high bar for the rest of us. Few of us could hope to match his success in such a diversity of pursuits. Mostly when we dabble in fields beyond our professional training, we wind up conceding that, while we may be happy apprentices, we will never be grand masters. Yet, we shouldn’t be discouraged by this. While you and I may never enjoy the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, we can nurture and explore a plethora of talents and abilities, just as he did. Leonardo gives us an ideal to aspire to, even if we can’t match his achievements. He is someone who cultivated his full potential to think, feel, do and be.

[Read more…]

Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language

LudwigWittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein made a major contribution to conversations on language, logic and metaphysics, but also ethics, the way that we should live in the world. Wittgenstein published only one book in his life, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921). The Philosophical Investigations (1953), for which he is most well known, is a posthumous document comprised of notes taken by students in his classes.

Wittgenstein was a difficult character. Those who knew him assumed he was either a madman or a genius. He was known for working himself up into fits of frustration, pacing about the room decrying his own stupidity, and lambasting philosophers for their habit of tying themselves in semantic knots. In his favour, Wittgenstein was not afraid to admit his own mistakes. He once said: ‘If people never did anything stupid, nothing intelligent would ever get done’. He also said: ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’. Students approached his classes at Cambridge University with due trepidation, never sure if they were about to witness a brilliant act of logical deconstruction or the implosion of a tortured mind.

Sometimes a crisis can be productive. Wittgenstein, who was constantly in the grip of some kind of intellectual cataclysm, tended to advance his thinking by debunking what he had previous thought to be true. The best example is his celebrated about turn on the nature of language. In the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued for a representational theory of language. He described this as a ‘picture theory’ of language: reality (‘the world’) is a vast collection of facts that we can picture in language, assuming that our language has an adequate logical form. ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things’, Wittgenstein claimed, and these facts are structured in a logical way. The goal of philosophy, for early Wittgenstein, was to pare language back to its logical form, the better to picture the logical form of the world.

[Read more…]

Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more…]


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