The plan is to meet coach and facilitator, Matt Wright, in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens… a green haven between the city’s towers and the calm waters of its iconic harbour. The perfect setting for a deep dive into leadership training and development in nature – what does it look like and why is it effective? COVID-19, however, has other plans… Matt suggests a call. Leadership lesson number one: flexibility.
“It’s important to have a plan, but often it goes out the window at the first engagement.”
Matt Wright: Lead Facilitator for the bespoke Gone Bush two-day nature immersions developed for BUPA’s Future Leaders program in November 2019. Locations: Yarra Ranges National Park (Victoria) and Lamington National Park (Queensland).
Tell me about your background Matt…
I consider myself a professional educator. Somebody who can draw learning out from a person or a situation, rather than a teacher. I trained as an Engineer – that taught me a lot about process, about rigour, problem solving and also project management. I gradually transformed into more of a teacher and I taught high school physics, maths and science as well as outdoor education for 14 years.
“Asking questions and allowing people to find their own knowledge, within and without, is a more effective, productive and inspiring way of educating.”
Through that process I realised that a didactic mode of teaching, while a popular model, wasn’t always the most effective. Asking questions and allowing people to find their own knowledge, within and without, is a more effective, productive and inspiring way of educating. The word “educate” and the word “ductile” come from the same Latin root – from your high school science, you might remember that a ductile metal is one that can be drawn out into a wire. To educate is to draw out from a person their own self-knowledge.
I’m really interested in experiential learning. What that implies is that we all take different learnings from the same experience. A lot of experiential learning has its basis in the natural environment, or at least outdoors.
How is the Gone Bush environment conducive to learning?
Gone Bush has as its primary context, the concept of using the natural environment as a context in which to learn. I’ve been lucky to see leadership programs and other development programs take place in that context, but usually it’s a secondary or tertiary element. Whereas Gone Bush is saying: we love and value the bush and what it brings and we are going to use it to the best of our ability.
Embodied in all of the guides is a real passion for the bush – whether that’s the two founders John Kugel and his brother Josh, or the aboriginal guides bringing their context, or the nature guides with their expertise. In my experience, if I think about some of the best teachers I ever worked with, it’s not their subject matter, but the passion of the teacher that draws students in.
“All the guides and facilitators in Gone Bush are there ready to support people when they need it. But also to give them a little shove, if they’re too comfortable!”
Gone Bush is an extraordinary group of people – the commitment to learning… it was just a privilege to be a part of that. Collaborating in this case with BUPA’s internal facilitators, they all create an environment of challenge and support. Most of us want to be in our comfort zone, but we recognise on reflection that we don’t learn much. We need to be challenged to come out of that comfort zone into a zone of learning. And we also recognise that if that challenge is too great for the individual, then we can go into a defensive or fear zone. All the guides and facilitators in Gone Bush are there ready to support people when they need it. But also to give them a little shove, if they’re too comfortable!
What was a highlight of the BUPA program?
The Ada Tree was my ten out of ten moment for 2019. Down in Victoria, we were in amongst forests of mountain ash – the largest flowering plant in the world. The Ada Tree is about 70m tall… it’s one of the trees that wasn’t felled when the area was logged around a century ago. As we all arrived, I was overcome with awe at this tree. If I had planned anything it had to go out the window. Everybody recognised it was a special moment. In silence, we walked down through this glade of mountain ash trees. We got on the track and we would’ve gone ten minutes down the track before anyone said a word.
During that time, you start to notice things. And it’s in that headspace that you notice the moss, you notice the leaves on the trees, you notice the insects on the leaves. You might start to notice the colours, or the subtleties, or the air, or the light… That’s the natural world entering your consciousness.
The natural world is so interconnected. Once you start to look closely, you recognise that none of it is separate. What struck me was the tree’s relationship to everything around it and how its roots might go out as far as the height of the tree – so we might be talking about a 150-metre circle.
How does this experience relate to leadership development?
I suspect that each participant would answer that differently and I think that’s part of the beauty of it. Self-awareness and awareness of others is a fundamental leadership trait. I talk about the concept of being a “learner” versus being a “knower” – that seed is planted early on in the programs and it comes out of the area that BUPA themselves bring, called a “growth mindset”.
I always say it’s natural to be a practitioner and a knower when we’re trying to impress our colleagues, our peers, even the facilitators. So a degree of humility is required to say: “I don’t know everything, and I’m here to learn rather than prove myself”. That’s where the bush helps us to see ourselves in a more humble context – to recognise that in the scheme of things we are small and insignificant, but we can have an impact. And that impact ripples outwards.
Feedback: a powerful learning and leadership tool
Feedback helps us uncover our own blind spots. If there’s one concept I wanted to accentuate and build on during these programs, it’s the idea of giving feedback – in both positive and constructive contexts. To stand on the shoulders of others and start to create a culture of feedback where people are open to learning about both their strengths and challenges. Part of that is starting with the self – these are the things I believe I’m doing well and these are others I can improve, before then asking others for feedback on our leadership behaviours.
One element that builds trust is being vulnerable as a leader, which actually implies that you don’t know everything – you don’t have all the answers, you’re not perfect. The hope is that participants can take that back to their work so that they recognise the value of it in terms of being a trusted leader and a trusted advisor.
“The ability to give and receive feedback in a non-defensive way is a lifelong lesson.”
A lot of these roles come with high expectations and high salaries. People feel they need to be in some way better, more perfect. We have that concept of the imposter syndrome. When we know we’re not as good as the role description might expect us to be, we tend to act out of fear and defensiveness. That can lead to behaviours that are in fact the opposite to vulnerability – putting up barriers and armour, which leads to qualities like perfectionism, competitiveness, oppositional and power based behaviours – all aggressive-defensive behaviours. The ability to give and receive feedback in a non-defensive way is a lifelong lesson.
Experiencing the Above and Below the Line model
Training techniques to embody and embed learning
One of the activities we do involves a simple task, which brings out blame in a group. It leads us to understanding the idea of the Above and Below the Line behaviour model: if we’re below the line we focus on others – on blame, accusing, denying, justifying, excusing, recruiting, and focus on the past; whereas if we’re above the line, we focus on ourselves – on us, I, we, me, we focus on the solution and the future. With that awareness, people can take control, rather than feel like victims.
We all know theory about many things. But do we apply it? Not so often. The idea of experiential learning is: 1) we raise awareness 2) we move towards acceptance 3) we take action – what action we take as a result of that experience and after the program, that’s what’s going to make a difference to a person’s life both personally and professionally.
Delivering long-term value
In experiential leadership programs we run, we might present five models, tools or concepts. We take people through awareness, acceptance and action, and repeat – until these things become a part of our world and our working. Another organisation might present 15 tools in a day, and all they’re creating is awareness.
One of the distinctive features of a good learning program is that it has to have longevity. A sheep dip two days, where people don’t have any preparation and they go away without any support, has limited value. The great thing about this Future Leaders program is that there were three modules of approximately two days each. The first two were in BUPA offices and out and about in city parks in Melbourne and Brisbane; the third was a two-day off-site stage (with Matt as Lead Facilitator). There’s time in between to reflect. One of the great things that BUPA did was to have embedding work in-between. So the learning is taking place over five or six months, rather than just two days. That’s a huge strength of the program.
“Put the two together and you’ve got a transformative experience in an extraordinary context.”
We’re all about transformation, in terms of our being rather than our knowing. It’s not just people going: “Oh yeah, I really understood that concept, that was great. I might use that”, it’s like: “this is transformative”. That’s the whole point about the experience: my passion for experiential learning and Gone Bush’s passion for the bush. You put the two together and you’ve got a transformative experience in an extraordinary context.
What would you say to organisations considering a Gone Bush experience?