CEO Coaching: Lessons From the Amazon Jungle (Yes, the Real One!)

You know those people you always have a great conversation with whenever you talk? My friend Art Petty is one of those. Always upbeat, inquisitive, and creative. (He also publishes great content and creates cool leadership development programs. Look him up and sign up for his blog.)

I told Art about an upcoming return fishing trip to the Amazon jungle in Brazil, and he wondered why he hadn’t read a blog about that. “Aren’t there some lessons that apply to leadership?” he asked. Of course, there are.…

The fish in Amazonia are amazing…and huge. Schools of piranha were a staple of television and movies when I was a kid, and they were in the four- to six-inch range. Here’s a picture of one of the many I caught—some much larger. What’s the lesson? If you leave people (and fish) alone, they can grow to great size and be very powerful. Put them in a box (or aquarium), and you stunt their growth. Can you get rid of many rules and work toward a “do the right thing” culture? Do you need to control to the degree you do?

Some of the best fishing (and business) is in dangerous terrain. We camped along the river among large caiman (think alligator); poisonous snakes (this is a 20-foot anaconda—not poisonous, it’ll strangle you before eating you—near our camp); those darn piranha; six-foot electric eels (my boatmate Dave hooked into this one); and jaguars to name a few. Business and the Amazon jungle aren’t for the squeamish. If you haven’t encountered much adversity in your leadership journey, you’ll be ill-prepared for the C-suite. If you’re successful, someone’s always trying to eat you!

We were fortunate to have native Amazonians as guides. They knew the river and, most important, the habitat and behavior of the fish. They were also brave as hell! When you inadvertently hooked bottom, they’d strip down, dive into the river, and come back with your fly. Ain’t no way I was getting in that water! Guides in the business world (bosses, coworkers, coaches, mentors) are just as important. Your confidence and independent streak may serve you well later in your career, but pay attention to those with more experience along the way. Also, give credit where it’s due. Although I may look like the proud victor after landing this peacock bass, what you don’t see is that after a ferocious fight, he broke my rod and swam under a log. My guide dove in and pulled him around the woodwork so that I could get him into the boat!

Showing up prepared is the only way to catch and land a lot of fish (and big fish). Bad casting, wrong flies, and poor line management and you’ll blow opportunity after opportunity. Lazy leadership is similar. If you don’t understand your fish, err…customers, you won’t land them. If your ability to develop and align a talented team is like some of my bad casts, you’re in trouble. 

You can manage big fish (both real and metaphorical) just as well as small fish with the right tools and skills. This guy was 150 pounds but pretty docile after I got a good grip on him! (There were no piranha in this stretch of water or I wouldn’t be in there!) As your business matures or you take different leadership roles, you’ll need different skills and tools. 

Experiencing this wild environment and fishing for river monsters was an absolute blast, but without my group of great friends with me, it’d be rather hollow. Whether fishing or leading, make sure you’re around people you respect and enjoy.

There’s a saying that “fishing isn’t the same as catching,” which captures the challenge. Likewise, leading isn’t always succeeding, but the challenge is about as interesting as it gets! You’ll never be as good as you’d like, but if you believe that learning is as important as achieving, you’ll have a great career!

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