Jim Vaselopulos interviews his podcast co-host, Jan Rutherford about Jan’s crucible expeditions in this inspiring and uplifting episode. Jan has done 21 crucible expeditions to date and they keep getting better and intentionally more diverse. Participants come by invitation and are selected for selflessness, a love of adventure, and heroic aspirations to make the world a better place. With those traits, a small group of strangers, coming as business executives or Special Operations veterans newly entering the corporate world, come together very quickly, with vulnerability and equality. Jan’s process is to design the experience, select the participants, get them together, and step back to let them learn and grow as a team, as the magic happens. Some highlights of the expeditions include rock climbing, the solo challenge of cultivating your thoughts alone and silently for three hours, and the fireside evening conversations. Jim went on two early expeditions and he is still friends with participants from each one. The expeditions change lives and leadership styles. Participants learn they have more in common than they have differences and strong bonds are formed. Listen in to learn how some of these lessons can apply to your organization.
[2:03] In this episode, Jan and Jim recap some learnings from two recent back-to-back crucible expeditions that Jan completed. A crucible expedition with Jan is a four-day, three-night wilderness expedition with executives who need a digital detox coupled with military veterans who are transitioning to the business world. The veterans are mostly from the Special Operations community.
[3:02] Participants go rock-climbing and backpacking in the middle of nowhere. Really great people get together for some great conversations. Jan selects the executives and veterans on three criteria: they are people who are trying to be as selfless as possible for the greater good, are adventurous, and possess heroic aspirations to try and make the world a better place, in things beyond power and money.
[3:57] By selecting those criteria, they get a bunch of strangers coming together as a team very quickly. Based on work Jan has done with surveys by PAIRIN, he believes that when people are out there with strangers, unlike with work colleagues, they have nothing to prove, protect, or promote.
[4:24] Jim has been on the Patagonia and Moab crucibles and he attests that they are incredible experiences that move you in ways you would never expect. Jan has done 21 crucible expeditions so far.
[5:34] Jan has found that his talent lies not in charismatic leadership but in designing the environment and culture for the team, stepping back, staying out of the way, and letting the magic happen. Jan shares his critique of an expedition Jim was on a few years ago. He says he should have stepped away more and guided things and discussions through questions.
[7:30] Jan shares a crucible learning for your work. There is one person in charge, and the second person is the accountability partner. If the leader takes a wrong turn, the accountability partner lets them make the mistake and learn from it. We don’t grow and develop without making and correcting mistakes. Let your people at work learn and develop from their mistakes.
[10:09] On the crucibles, you’ve got executives that are making the time and space for their improvement. Jan just spoke to someone who loved the outdoor aspect of the crucible and feels like she needs more time off. Jan tells executives to find the sweet spot between sitting on the hill, figuring out what their team needs, and getting with the team, working with them, and coaching them, first-hand.
[11:44] Executive coaches work to try to get people to move from being “here,” doing “these things,” to being “there,” doing “those things.” It takes self-discipline, sacrifice, focus, delegation, and trust to get there. That’s where accountability partners come in, plus taking time to reflect. Jan tells about the three-hour solo challenge of silent alone-time, thinking for three hours, and reporting on it later.
[13:30] The bedrock of the crucible is that people relate to each other as humans, that they’re vulnerable. People are dealing with a lot on the homefront and the things they are struggling with come up in their first meeting. Often it is family stuff. The idea that it’s OK not to be OK comes through. At work, senior leaders have to be strong and act in a certain way to get performance from other people.
[14:49] On a crucible, people let their guard down. They might cry around the campfire or climbing a mountain, even though they never cry. In some ways, their crying and vulnerability bring the team together. It’s a gift to show your real emotions. It’s not a gift stoic people share at work. And everybody on the crucible is equal.
[16:25] Jim summarizes that vulnerability is the resounding theme of a crucible. You are put in a situation where you are physically vulnerable. In the evening discussions, people became more mentally and emotionally vulnerable. Jan believes that whiskey helps. He has seen it. Jim is still close to people from both of his crucible trips in a different way than his golfing buddies.
[18:09] When you go out there as a business executive, having little to no experience with veterans, or the elite operators who go on these expeditions, you might think you have nothing in common with them. You come away with respect that goes both ways. You see the military in a different light. The folks in the military now see civilians in a different light.
[18:56] Only one percent of the population in America has anything to do with the military. It has become a family business. Most of those families are from the South. The military is very insular. You’re around people that think, act, and talk like you. Your world is filled with military acronyms. The military spends money. You’re not in the generate revenue, create demand business.
[20:03] A lot of the leadership and people challenges are very similar between the military and business. In the past two years, twice, a special operations commando who has carried a flag under his body armor on multiple missions decided to give that flag to executive participants from the crucible — they were flags that could have draped a body if the operator had not survived a mission.
[21:37] A crucible changes people’s lives. After the Patagonia crucible, Jim took a fork in the road that he might not have taken before the crucible. Jim says when you spend the time and get to know other people, you’re much more similar than you think. That kind of experience is something to keep in mind when you look at our divisive society. Take the time to listen to people and gain their perspectives.
[22:51] On one trip, sitting around the fire at the end, a leader said it was interesting that “none of us talked about politics or religion. I’m guessing, politically, we go from left to right and in-between. Look how great we got along. This is what Americans should be about.” It was a powerful moment. Each participant was only in the category of human with heroic aspirations beyond power and money.
[24:24] The crucible cannot scale. It cannot be done with big groups in wilderness areas and some people couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. So, Jan is writing a book about it with a co-author who is a past crucible participant and military veteran.
[25:01] There was little diversity in the first expeditions. Jan credits Sheryl Tullis with helping him make the teams intentionally diverse and representative of the workforce. Jan believes that the men bring out the best in the women participants and vice versa. Jan marvels at the self-confidence of some of the recent diverse participants. They know who they are and what they bring to the table.
[27:52] One reason a recent expedition was so good was that there was diversity of age, gender, geography, and company size. The veterans were thoughtful, deliberate, cerebral people, deeply curious about the business world they were going into. These trips are about what happens in the one-on-one discussions as you’re walking down the trail, and in the evening discussions around the fire.
[29:35] U.S. Navy SEAL Master Chief Stephen Drum has been on the podcast. He is writing a book and Jim is reading the preliminary manuscript for him. Stephen writes that when SEALS wash out, it is never about physical fitness. It’s always about lacking strength of character, conviction, or values. Some of the strongest people on a crucible are strongest in character.
[31:17] Jan mentions Don Yaeger, a Sports Illustrated writer and author of many books about great athletes. Don says all great athletes hate to lose more than they like to win. The reason Jan became a Green Beret is that he did not quit. He was 18 years old. More than he wanted to win, he did not want to fail.
[32:32] In the business world, at some point things are going to be hard. There’s always something nagging at you that says, “Quit.” If what you are doing is aligned with your values, then you won’t quit. If it’s not aligned with your values, it doesn’t serve you.
[33:33] Steve Drotter, a previous guest of the podcast with old-school values, said, “A career is made from having hard jobs that suck and bosses that beat you up. That makes a career!” Today, it seems the job caters to the employee. There is a supply-and-demand issue. The workplace is not as tough as it used to be.
[34:50] Jan is hearing from the Army and the Marines that young people entering the services have no outdoor experience; no woodcraft or fieldcraft. Jan wonders what’s happening in the business world where people come in without knowing certain things! Jim observes that their writing is atrocious. But now we don’t write long business reports, we write Powerpoints. Expectations have changed.
[36:54] Job conditions wax and wane, and we may go back to a more tough work environment in a few years, where employers have the upper hand, instead of the employees. These are the leadership challenges we have.
[37:38] Jan’s last words: The crucibles are a passion and a privilege. The only way you’re going to change your narrative is to step out of your comfort zone. Whether you go on a crucible or do something else, Jan and Jim encourage you to think about the things where you find purpose and meaning, where you can make a contribution to the greater good, and be bold and make things happen.
[39:14] Closing quote: “Twice and thrice over, as they say, good is it to repeat and review what is good.” — Plato.