Morocco: Leadership in the High Atlas Mountains

By Rosie Walford

Viva explores the globe following three intrepid women taking the path least travelled. Rosie Walford takes us on the second venture through rough terrain which became more a journey of self-discovery.

Rosie Walford reflects on nature in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Photo / Supplied
Rosie Walford reflects on nature in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Photo / Supplied

The red-rock desert of Morocco's High Atlas Mountains is searingly hot. I find myself under a juniper tree, asking questions of a stump and a boulder. I'm alone, and I'm asking these questions aloud. But I'm not mad. I'm the owner of a small business and consultant to much larger ones. I'm also a facilitator and coach.

From these mountain heights, my multifarious work activities resemble the branching tributaries of the river below. They rush apart, dissipating energy. I realise I have travelled to Morocco to find their single source.

So I'm on "Lead Like a River", a week-long leadership quest which promises to highlight my vision and release me from unhelpful old assumptions.

I'd read that we'd be based at the Kasbah Toubkal, a renovated mudbrick fort under North Africa's highest peak, and that we'd use the river nearby as a metaphor for gathering force, negotiating obstacles, flowing in a clear direction.

On reading that the quest could "reveal the source of my inspiration to influence others", I'd signed on the dotted line.

How can one week promise such vast certainties?

One answer lies in the unlikely and powerful pairing of facilitators. First, we have Eugene Hughes, an ebullient Irish dynamo who runs a booming global leadership consultancy and is also an art therapist.

His foil, Trebbe Johnson, is a deeply grounded American author who, for decades, has led journeys into wilderness to explore myths, nature, spirit and purpose.

Lead Like a River is their collaboration - an original blend of ancient vision questing and contemporary creative process, of corporate leadership development and universal outdoor experience.

Our third facilitator is the landscape. We drive from Marrakech to a remote Berber village, then climb a rocky mountainside with mules. On an outcrop jutting into the valley, massive doors open on to a flower-filled courtyard. The kasbah is all weathered timbers and antique weavings, yet the eye is constantly drawn to the relentlessly arid peaks, daunting and beautiful, all around.

In a few days we will walk further into the mountains for our solo time with nature but for now we have every comfort: my bedroom is one whole floor of an ancient stone tower. It's rustic-chic, fully carpeted with kilim rugs. Hundreds of fossils pattern the marble of my bathroom; candles glint through big brass lamps.

The first three days prepare us to experience ourselves and nature in novel ways. One early exercise sends us down through a band of nut trees bordering the river. This is no ordinary walk. Eugene has introduced us to the concept of universal human archetypes.

Evidently, my working self lacks Warrior (who leads through action) and I'm repelled by being Emperor (who leads by control). Trebbe has instructed us to walk with these missing archetypes as our imaginary companions and to discuss with them the aspects of our personalities that they evoke. We're also to interrogate any elements of nature which seem to somehow embody these archetypes.

I muse on a slowly ripening pomegranate and remember that there's huge satisfaction in fast, measurable results; a stiff architectural thistlehead held aloft hints that control and structure can be benign.

I've been avoiding goal-setting and building infrastructure for my business for a decade. When I debrief my walk in the voices of my archetypes, I speak enthusiastically of delegating to a team of employees. Old unquestioned assumptions must have quietly loosened their grip.

Next day we alternate between time indoors and out. Eugene teaches us the Tibetan tradition of mandala-making to map our individual values. To describe "our people" (the extended circle of community which matter to us), we use Native American war-leader Crazyhorse Lakota's way with metaphors.

As we uncover hidden aspects of our own identity through these unfamiliar modes of expression, we also witness others unfold.

In the ordinary world, my eight fellow travellers are leaders in world class design teams, public health bodies, corporates or their own enterprises. Here on the mountains, everyone is exploring areas that aren't so certain; the edges where something needs to change. There is hilarity, regret, and always a deep respectful listening, which makes it uncommonly easy to speak from the heart.

Steering away from the familiar lens of the intellect, we spend hours observing the river as symbol of the leadership running through our lives. Trebbe has sent us out with wonderful watery questions: "See how this river starts with a spring: what's always bubbling up in you? See how it plunges over rocks getting new energy: what is it that gives you new energy? Rivers pick up detritus - sticks, feathers, litter: what do you pick up along the way?"

On our return, Eugene helps us present our experiences creatively. If we normally write prose, we should write poems. If we normally use words, we should paint.

When I read my poem, I feel such passion for its sustainability themes that I tremble. Using watery metaphors, I've dissolved my fears about being under-substantiated, and suddenly I've found my voice. Months later, I recall this feeling as I start my first keynote speech.

We set off towards our mountain refuge in blazing sun. Crossing into a new valley, snowy peaks loom through heat-shimmers. Our muleteers carpet an impromptu shady lunch-lounge and serve us hot tagines with mint tea. Dropping through an isolated Berber settlement, we glimpse rare vignettes of traditional Moroccan life.

We scatter before daylight to be still, alone, and fasting until dusk. Solitude seems daunting in this harsh terrain. But we have named our intentions and learned how to use rocks, trees or birds as reflectors of emotional patterns. Wilderness may evoke fears, but at least we know how we'll begin - by entering our chosen spot with ceremony.

Up high, under my juniper tree, I snooze, observe insects, shout out. A comma-shaped boulder triggers sudden apprehension of a childhood experience, and its influence over my adult choices ever since. I forgive myself. I get rapturous, poetic, bored. I let the landscape outside mirror the landscape within. The rock shows me how to edit my career portfolio according to my own values.

This is the singularity - the discernment - for which I came to Morocco.

Coming down from the mountain, we use Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey to conceptualise what's just happened. Campbell writes that an adventurer always encounters demons, and returns with a gift which he applies back in his community. On Lead Like a River, the facilitators take care that this gift will be tangible.

At the Kasbah we form pairs and detail the changes that we'll apply in our leadership roles and personal lives.

At the quest's end there is feasting and Berber dancing. I have criteria by which to edit my worklife. Even the most rational thinkers among us have talked to trees. Metaphors and paintings have moved us beyond ossified old constructs of ourselves.

On holiday, instead of in therapy or strategic sessions, we've seen what we stand for and what's to be done. I know no better route to self-knowledge than a wonderful journey, well guided, in nature itself.

* The next Lead Like a River: Morocco trip is on August 4-11. Cost: €3300 (NZ$5306, includes all meals lodging and transportation; does not include airfare). Rosie Walford offers The Big Stretch mountain retreats in Europe and individual breakthrough sessions or leadership coaching on Waiheke Island.

- NZ Herald

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