I don’t know where I am going, but I know exactly how to get there.” – Boyd Varty

In September 2023, we had the privilege of hosting master tracker Alex van den Heever on our monthly beCOOL Community conversation.  This was an extremely rich conversation, exploring the synergies between our world of wayfinding uncertainty in business and the ancient practice of wildlife tracking.  Alex and his partner Renias Mhlongo are regarded as two of the best trackers in the world and run an academy where they train others in this ancient practice.

Tim Ingold defines Wayfinding (or Waysfinding as we like to think of it) as “Knowing as you go, not before you go”.  During our conversation, it became clear that such wayfinding is a core aspect of tracking, where you simply cannot know everything before you set out.  As Alex rightly pointed out, “there is always variability in nature, so uncertainty is part of the job”.  

Being a tracker might seem quite idyllic, and it might not immediately seem like business leaders and trackers have much in common.  However, trackers often face many simultaneous pressures: accompanying (often naïve) people into a dangerous and uncertain environment while under pressure to perform and provide specific sightings.

So how do they do it?

Alex shared the following process with us:

  1. Find the track

There might be hundreds of potential tracks to follow, trackers need to cut through the noise to find the spoor (track) that matters.   This requires discernment and patience. A trap here is a bias for action, i.e. not taking the time to assess all the possibilities before acting.  In business strategy, do we have the ability and the patience to cut through the noise to find the signals (risk or opportunity) that matter?   In our experience, the ever-increasing pace of the corporate context undermines our ability to make prudent choices. (find out more – slowness blog)

2. Follow the track

“Wayfinding rests on being in the present moment, staying still, and becoming calibrated to the signs.” – Spiller et al.

Trackers stay present to their Curiosity and employ all their senses to attune to the signs around them.  They are paying attention to the track on the ground and other signs, like broken twigs, bird alert calls, etc.  Here, a trap is to become hyper-focused on one thing (e.g. the track) and miss other helpful signs – or become so focused on the lion track on the ground that you forget to look up and blunder into a dangerous situation, i.e. the lion!  Alex made a distinction between focused and diffuse thinking, highlighting that we need both.

What signs are we attuned to in business as we engage in strategic waysfinding?  Are we scanning broadly enough, e.g., do we know what is happening on the edges of our industries?  Are we aware of weak signals?  Do we pay attention to “alarm calls” or ignore them?  Are we so hyper-focused on meeting targets that we miss risks and opportunities right before us?

3. Lose and regain the track

Trackers know that losing the track is inevitable.  When that happens, it is critical to be honest, especially with yourself.  Denial is the trap here, as it is impossible to get back on track when you can’t admit to losing it.

This is probably one of the hardest things for business leaders – to admit when they have made a strategic error and need to pivot or start again.  We live in a world where dominant narratives equate competence with being right or knowing.  But just like the trackers, if we cannot admit that we have lost track as soon as we realise it, we make it impossible to get back on track and make things much worse.

4. Close the gap

This is where the tracker’s knowledge and experience truly shine.  Animals like lions move much faster across the landscape than humans can. Often, it is impossible to catch up to them, so the trackers must find a way to close the gap.  To do that, they tap into their knowledge of the landscape and the animal’s behaviour, and they use their imaginative capacity to create a narrative of where the animal might be going and why.  Trackers shift from following the track in the present to a form of anticipation – they attempt to leapfrog the animal to get ahead of it.  For example, they might consider the direction the lions are travelling; they might know that the lions haven’t made a kill recently and remember a herd of Zebra that they saw the night before not too far away.  From this, they might create a narrative that the lions will likely be found stalking the zebra and decide to leave the trail and head over to where they last saw the herd.  It is a form of continuous hypothesis building, adjusting as new signs present themselves.  

Here, hubris is a trap – being overly certain and ignoring what is in front of you, e.g. I know these lions; they always drink water this time of the day.  

In business, how often do we employ our imagination?  Or do we perceive it as soft or immature?  And how often does over-confidence in our previous experience cloud our judgment?  Can we remain Open to new information?  

5. Encounter

Finally, if all goes well it leads to an encounter with the animal.  Master trackers practice gratitude and remain in wonder when this happens.  It can be easy for the ego to get in the way here, but a good encounter is never certain in the ever-present uncertainty of the natural world.  In business, do we practice gratitude and celebrate our wins, or do we allow our egos to get in the way?  Do we value the journey or simply chase the next target?

Trackers, and business leaders need to be comfortable with uncertainty, which means that they need to be COOL:

  • to COURAGEOUSLY make choices, follow a particular track or strategic path and have the courage to admit when they have lost the track and need to pivot.
  • be OPEN to a wide variety of information, to being in continuous change and uncertainty and to being vulnerable and admitting when things go wrong
  • to OBSERVE their own tendencies to hubris or ego so that they don’t become trapped.  AND remain situationally aware, observing the various environmental signs to enable them to track an animal or strategy effectively.
  • And finally, they practice LIGHTNESS – they don’t take themselves too seriously, they use their imagination as well as their knowledge, and they never lose their sense of gratitude, awe and wonder. 

If you'd like to join our free beCOOL community and be part of future COOL Conversations, sign up here.

Learn more about Alex and Renias here.

Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves because of the cool things we get to do. Today I want to share one of these with you.

We were approached by a client towards the end of last year with a request to help a team regain their "mojo" after a very tough 2021 to prepare for significant planned changes for 2022. Like most other teams, this one had to deal with members who had experienced loss and trauma, many members close to burn-out, and the simple fact that people had to get to know each other again - they were no longer the same team they were in 2020. They also needed to think differently as the challenges that lay ahead in 2022 were complex and would require new thinking and practice.

This was a team in need of replenishment, and we have learned that spending time in nature and in the presence of beauty are the best ways to replenish for most people. So we called on our friend, Dr. Ian McCallum, to co-design and facilitate a 2-day journey with this team. Ian is a medical doctor, analytical psychologist, psychiatrist, specialist wilderness guide, author, and poet. His book, Ecological Intelligence , is a must-read. We were delighted when he agreed to work with us, even more so when he suggested the Dylan Lewis sculpture garden in Stellenbosch as the venue for a half-day immersive experience with the team.

I think we were more excited than the team members were when we set off for the garden that morning. We weren't sure what to expect, but we were sure whatever happened would be profound. The day before, we had prepared the group with presensing and mindfulness practices and a sense-making exercise to help them get a new perspective on their work. This formed the backdrop for a morning with Ian. And what a morning it was!

To be in the presence of a poet, especially one with a deep understanding of the human psyche is an exceptional experience. The day started with a simple question: what brings you here? Ian carefully noted down each response and then gifted the group's own words back to them in the form of an impromptu poem. It was a profoundly moving experience. Ian then shared his perspective on the impact of COVID before guiding the team on a walk through the garden.

To understand this profound experience, I need to try to describe the garden. Set in a beautiful hidden valley outside Stellenbosch, the beautiful mountains create a natural sense of containment and a beautiful natural backdrop to a garden that not only contains works of art but is a work of art. Many of the sculptures in the garden are accompanied by poetry or quotes, many by Ian McCallum. One of the first quotes one encounters is by Jung and reads: "To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images– that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions– I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them."

This provides a hint of what awaited us in the garden. Dylan Lewis is a world-renowned bronze sculptor. He is well known for his sculptures of leopards, but his later works explore the inner wilderness of being human. Many of the sculptures and quotes induce a visceral response; they speak to us on a level that words alone cannot. Ian's calming presence allowed every person in the group to go on their own individual replenishment journey. 

In the debrief afterward, people shared their own unique meaning-making of the experience, allowing the team members to reconnect with each other on a deeply personal level. The foundation laid by this process then allowed us to move forward from a different perspective to have conversations about the year ahead and how the team could best prepare for it. The realisation that we are not separate from nature, wilderness, viruses ... that we are deeply connected and entangled with life on this planet, and therefore with complexity, was a profound learning experience for us all. It is a realisation that shapes our mindsets to engage and navigate the uncertainties of the future in fundamentally different ways.

I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say this was a career highlight for me. If you are interested in a similar, uniquely crafted experience for your team, get in touch. And if you ever have the opportunity to visit the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden, do!

I end with a poem by Ian McCallum and a few images from the day.  

Sculpture by Dylan Lewis (The Rising

THE RISING

One day

your soul will call to you

with a holy rage.

"Rise up!" it will say …

Stand up inside your own skin.

Unmask your unlived life …

feast on your animal heart.

Unfasten your fist …

let loose the medicine

in your own hand.

Show me the lines …

I will show you the spoor

of the ancestors.

Show me the creases …

I will show you

the way to water.

Show me the folds …

I will show you the furrows

for your healing.

"Look!" it will say …

the line of life has four paths –

one with a mirror

one with a mask,

one with a fist,

one with a heart.

One day,

your soul will call to you

with a holy rage.

                Ian McCallum

Ian reciting his poem The Rising
A selection of images from the garden.
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