Leadership Lessons from the Desert

By Drew Dudley

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

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I’m writing about these leadership lessons on the 1st anniversary of the first article I ever published here on “About Leaders.”

That article about an accidental teacher named Mustafa, who encouraged me to “never let people live rent-free in your head,” has turned into a TEDx talk and become a staple of my presentations all over the world.

I thought it would be fitting today to share a few more of Mustafa’s lessons from that day in the desert.

Organized Chaos

I knew I was going to love dune blasting about 30 seconds after Mustafa and I hit the desert.

After a 90-minute drive out of Doha, we pulled up at what appeared to be Qatar’s own desert amusement park. Except there were no rides, no concessions, and no screaming kids in strollers in this version. Instead, we pulled off the road and headed towards what appeared to be a hub of barely organized chaos. Various types of 4×4 trucks were scattered everywhere – some heading deeper into the desert, others spilling out tourists like me as their guides let the air out of the tires to prepare for the day ahead.

Robed men spilled out of makeshift tents to offer us hot tea and short rides on their camels as we waited to start the next leg of our journey. The camels looked anything but impressed with all of this and didn’t hesitate to let their feelings known by tossing nasty-sounding hisses in our direction.

A short distance away, 100-foot sand dunes rose above us, looking like giant tidal waves that had been frozen in place just before breaking over the hundreds of people milling about below them. Dozens of dune buggies buzzed like blackflies around the tops of the dunes. I couldn’t believe how they managed to climb what looked to me to be the completely vertical faces of the dunes, flying off the tops before disappearing down the other side – the fading sounds of their engines the only indication they hadn’t flown off the side of the earth.

It was chaotic, noisy, smelled like a camel (which, for the record, is not pleasant), and basically awesome in every way.

Leadership Lesson 1. Finding the Right Speed

Mustafa rose after releasing the appropriate amount of air from our truck’s tires and, smiling broadly, indicated it was “time to drive!”

And could that man ever drive?

Up the dunes, down the dunes, along the side of the dunes. It felt almost like a spacecraft at times, as the sand allowed us to go almost completely vertical, facing both up and down. Imagine Spiderman transformed into a Toyota Landcruiser – it was like defying gravity at 70 miles an hour.

As we sat at the top of a dune with several other vehicles, admiring the Saudi Arabian border a few miles in the distance, I asked Mustafa what the secret to being a great “dune driver” was.

“Resisting the urge to go too slowly,” he replied. “Driving in the dunes is like finding your way through life: there’s going to be this urge to go slowly, to try to be safe. Unfortunately, being safe and going slowly is not always the same thing.”

“They’re not?” I asked. “Doesn’t going a little more slowly mean you have more time to react to things? More time to see problems coming and create plans to deal with them? Doesn’t it give you a little more control?”

Mustafa shook his head.


Leadership Lesson 2. Speed and Momentum

“That’s our instinct, I know, but in the sand, going too slowly takes away your control. If you don’t have enough speed and momentum, your choices are taken away from you, and your environment controls where you go. You can turn the wheel all you want, but your fate is with the sand. It will slide you or flip you the way it chooses. But if you build up the right amount of speed, you can have complete control. But you must always be cautious about building up only the speed necessary to generate control and choices. Speed up too much, and once again, you are no longer in charge of your own movements. You may get to choose the direction, but you won’t be able to adjust beyond that.”

He took a long drink of water and thought for a moment. “I guess that here in the desert, like in life, your momentum is what gives you your choices. Too slow, and your environment takes control from you; too fast, and you take it from yourself.”

Mustafa finished his water and hopped off the hood of the Land Cruiser.

“Come on,” he said. “It’s time to head to our camp! We have quite the dinner waiting!”

Leadership Lesson 3. Let Them Discover You

As we headed towards the desert camp, the vehicles fell into line, one after the other.

“You all use the same camp?” I asked Mustafa.

“Everyone with my company, yes,” he replied.

“Wait…it’s YOUR company?” I asked.

“Yes!” He said with a smile. “A few years ago, I bought it. Everyone here works for me!”

This was apparent when one of the 4x4s slid out of line and found itself stuck in the sand.

“He didn’t find the right speed,” Mustafa said with a wink, hopping out of our vehicle to check on the situation. It was instantly apparent Mustafa was the man in charge, as the half dozen other guides in our convoy quickly deferred to him on decisions. It was clear they admired his perspective and expertise, and together they got the vehicle back in line with little delay.

“Your staff seems to really respect you,” I commented when we’d begun moving again.

He nodded. “I let them discover me,” he said.

“Discover you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Too many of my bosses tried to display what made them the boss. They tried to display that they were smart, that they had power, or that they knew what was best. They performed for us. They talked about what they wanted to do, and how they were going to do it. They put on a show about how they were the right boss for the company and the right boss for us.”

He winked at me again. “Drew, the key is not to talk about why you are good for the people who work for you; it’s to show them why you are good for them. You have to let your people discover what is valuable about you. Your only goal should be to act in a way that when they discover who you are, they feel like they’ve discovered a treasure.”

He looked over at me with a grin. “That’s the key to working well with people, living a life that makes you a treasure to discover.”


Leadership Lesson 4. Never go Straight

I sat back in my seat, reflecting on all this amazing man had taught me over the course of the past several hours. The sun was very low in the sky at this point, and my eyelids were getting heavy. I realized that Mustafa was leading the convoy in a zigzag pattern across the desert – back and forth in sweeps of about 200 feet. I assumed he was trying to make sure I got my money’s worth on the trip by keeping things exciting.

“Mustafa, my friend,” I said. “You’ve been so amazing today, and you don’t need to do anything more!”

“What do you mean?” He asked.

“The driving,” I said, pointing at the wheel. “You can honestly just go straight to the camp, and I won’t be disappointed!”

“Oh!” He laughed. “This isn’t for you! You never go straight in the desert if you can help it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, look ahead when the light is like this,” he said, pointing out the windshield. “Everything looks the same out there when you approach it from one direction. You don’t see craters and holes or rocks. To make sure you actually understand what’s coming, you have to drive through the desert like a snake moves – back and forth, back and forth. That way, you see what’s ahead of you from many different angles, and you understand how to approach it more effectively.”

He turned the wheel to the left and started another turn before continuing.

“You can go straight towards something Drew, and you might get there faster, but you’re not going to see everything you should see. You’re going to miss some of the things you shouldn’t miss. Never go straight, Drew, not in the desert and not in your life.”


My “Desert Thoughts”

Throughout the day, I furiously punched Mustafa’s wisdom into the “Notes” section of my Blackberry, entitling the entry “Desert Thoughts.” Upon my return to Canada, that note continued to grow as I started to refer to any particularly useful piece of wisdom, or memorable quote, as a “Desert Thought.” Over the past three years, that note I opened to write down Mustafa’s words has grown to over 10,000 words of insight from people all over the world.

It was one day in the desert, but the wisdom I have given shapes me to this day. I recognize now that perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much about creating five-year plans: perhaps it’s best to aim to create five-year momentum, knowing it will allow me to keep control and change direction when I need to.

I try, whenever possible, to avoid going straight at anything instead of recognizing that examining different angles is far more likely to help me arrive in the most productive way possible. Taking that approach has helped me realize “there is no reason for anything, but there are reasons for everything.”

Most notably, it’s helped me try to create plans that will help ensure that when I let people discover me, they’ll find something valuable. I encourage you to do the same.

What Leadership Lessons Have You Learned Recently?

If you have ideas about leadership lessons that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.
  • Drew Dudley, hop to see you in Qatar with more Adventure.

  • Rose Green says:

    Some really interesting thoughts – I especially like the idea of being ‘discovered’ by colleagues.

  • Mark Graybill says:

    Your style of rhetoric renders an enjoyable mosaic of prose that inspires syntheses of thought borne in the analogies you shared. Thanks!

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