What I Learned In Utah

There is a humility that comes with climbing those canyons in Utah and making your way through its deserts.  No one knows you, there is no internet or cell phone connection within miles, and what worked for you back East doesn’t when you start your climb to the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion. You have to unlearn and learn very quickly. The rules out there are simple, you prove yourself all over again to yourself and others. You learn the rules of the wild and unforgiving environment in order to sample its beauty.

One day, as I was carefully choosing every step and trying to not look at the vertical drops surrounding me, an overwhelming feeling spread through me. A sense of being completely connected with my environment, my thoughts, emotions, and body. But why?? After all, it was an excruciatingly hot day, one misstep and I would be falling thousands of feet to my death, and physically, I was pushing through to reach the limits of my endurance. My heart was pounding and my thoughts of survival racing.  Why was I so connected and energized?  Why was I so happy, so fulfilled, so at peace, and so determined?  And then I thought of the leaders I work with and how unfulfilled and unhappy so many of them are.  But why?? After all, they too push themselves to the limit of their endurance. Long hours of work each day with emails flying off of their devices well into the night. Their decisions and actions are also high altitude risky and can easily lead to unforgiving falls.

And then the distinctions presented themselves. I really had a passion for reaching the destinations and goals I had set for myself. And, I came with humility and respect to discover and follow a path that nature would grant me. I was not going to tell nature to arrange a different path for me or to make special accommodations. Those fellow travelers that were ahead, behind, and coming in the opposite direction were sharing a journey with me. We had very narrow paths to navigate between us. My ascents and descents were in concert with theirs. Either we succeeded together or there was a good chance that some of us were going to be hurt. I did not come with a knowing mindset. I was taking my cues in the moment and was completely present. My pre-planned strategies somehow seemed less important than what nature was dictating. Out there, all of your intelligences start to work together. My cognitive intelligence was quickly calculating ways to scale those cliffs and how to conserve energy and water; my spatial intelligence was informing me of what is possible; my physical intelligence was providing up to the second information about how my body was doing; and my emotional intelligence tried to motivate me to be kind to myself.

My surroundings were a constant reminder of my size, power, longevity, and significance relative to shapes that had been carved over millions of years. I realized why true servant leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln always had a sense of scale. That they had limited time to pursue their dreams. Their lives would only be meaningful if it helped others scale greater heights. Achieving meaningful results involves taking risk and can be uncomfortable. As if by magic, it played itself out right there in front of me. An eagle was teaching her young eaglet how to fly.  It was a spectacular and perilous site. The eagle would take her eaglet to great heights and drop her. As the young eaglet was descending at a dizzying speed, the eagle would swoop her up and take her back up, only to drop her again.  The routine would continue over and over again until the young eaglet started to spread its wings and learn how to fly.  I was reminded of great leaders that know when to release and when to swoop until their protégés learn to spread their wings.

Perhaps the greatest gift of Utah was that my five year old son and his male caretaker accompanied me.  My son, being the trooper that he is, actually mounted many of the heights up to where it was safe for him.  There were so many moments when he and I just looked into each other’s eyes and completely understood the needs and the thoughts of the other. The environment dictated it. I felt that that connection was one that will not be forgotten. It was eyeball to eye ball. It was sitting down to eat when we both were famished. It was going under a water fall at the top of a challenging and very hot climb and experiencing the joy of that freezing water without complaint. It was sharing water from the same backpack. It was the nights when we fell asleep at the same moment, after the first story, next to one another, with a peaceful smile on our faces.

I came back determined to ensure that I place myself in more environments like the ones I experienced in Utah.  Environments that force me to be present. That reward camaraderie and team work. That dislodge me from my comfort zone so that I be open to other alternatives, emotions, instincts, and behaviors. We spend over 75% of waking hours at work. Is it really true that we can’t create environments that to some extent replicate the ones Utah showed me?

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. When was the last time you had a similar experience?
  2. Can you see anyone at work accompanying you on a similar experience? If not, why not?
  3. What environments are you creating around yourself to ground you and connect you with all of you? And creating for others?



About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

One Response to What I Learned In Utah

  1. John Craig says:

    Kaveh — I had a smile on my face the whole time reading your post about Utah. Having scaled Angel’s Landing twice, I know exactly the feeling. Passing signs warning you of the dangers of the climb (several hikers have died over the years) has a way of focusing your attention on the here and now. The climb itself is simultaneously challenging, scary and exhilarating. There’s this sense of shared accomplishment by everyone who makes it to the top, even among total strangers. I shared the climb with family the first; with friends the second. No doubt it would be a powerful experience to share with business colleagues.

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