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The Expedition Mentality

Lisa Kavanaugh is an ICF certified Executive & Life Design Coach. A true global citizen, she holds US & EU citizenship, and splits her time between California, Mexico, Portugal and “somewhere exciting and new.” As a former CTO, she loves working with leaders being stretched in big new ways.


One of my favorite methods of personal growth is through embarking on adventures into the wilderness. When I’m thrown outside my comfort zone, facing fears, forced to be a novice, I learn more about myself than any book or training can teach me.

This past summer, I had the great fortune of rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for 16 days on a self-supported river trip with friends.

I had rafted the Grand Canyon as a kid with my family on a commercial trip, and let me tell you, a self-supported journey is a whole other ballgame. Planning, provisioning, permits, assembling/disassembling the boats and camp, plotting the course, navigating the weather (including sandstorms, rainstorms & flash floods to name a few), rowing class 3, 4 and even 5 (!) rapids without losing gear or humans… the complexity & risk made it a true feat of leadership.

It was on this trip that I learned the term “Expedition Mentality” and it has come to stick at the forefront of my leadership playbook.

What is the the Expedition Mentality? If you Google Expedition Mentality you may find some of the following definitions:

  • Being adaptable to changing circumstances, staying physically & emotionally present and looking for the positive during difficult times.

  • A way of thinking that supports the journey and the purpose.

  • Communicative, adaptable, generous

  • Having the mindset to focus on taking care of yourself, your team, and your resources

But the definition that captures it best for me is the one from The Polar Explorers:

The expedition mindset includes an awareness of all the relationships within the group and a commitment to being attentive to those relationships in a positive way. It means asking for help when you need it and offering help to others on a regular basis.

When I first trained with CRR Global in Organizational Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC), I learned to identify the systems around myself, the relationships they are made up of and the opportunities to improve them. Each of us is at this very moment a part of many different systems in our lives, our family system, the organization we work in, and the sub-systems (teams) within. And, we are impacting those systems with every action and interaction we have.

Having an expedition mindset means taking personal responsibility for the success of the journey. It’s about intentionally having a positive impact with not only your actions (doing) but your energy (being).

How to apply this mindset: Become an Expert Observer

Whether you are starting a new job, a new team or embarking on an expedition with a group into the wilderness, you are entering a new system. The first place to start is to channel your inner anthropologist and start observing. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What are the important roles in this system and who is playing them?

  • What jobs need to be done in this system?

  • What skills are needed to do these jobs? Which are high vs low skill jobs?

  • Where are the pain points?

  • Where can I be most helpful?

Questions like this can help you start to map out the system and it’s parts. They also help you start to identify where the opportunities are for you to make a positive impact.

Drink Your (Metaphorical) Water

Before any boat can enter the Colorado River for a Grand Canyon trip you have to meet with a park ranger for a safety briefing. Dehydration is the biggest risk to a trip going sideways in the summer. We had consistent temperatures above 105 degrees and with a lot of physical exertion it is very easy to dehydrate which can lead to evacuation and even death.

Notice yourself feeling irritable and agitated? Drink some water. Notice someone else getting snappy or grumpy, offer them some water. I love this as a metaphor for taking care of ourselves and each other so that we can show up as our best selves to support the shared mission.

Be Helpful & Humble

While there were many river veterans among our group, I was not one of them. We had seasoned river guides, flight medics, ICU nurses, while I came in knowing pretty much zero about anything relevant to our expedition. This system was completely foreign to me. And it felt vulnerable! How would I contribute? How would I show competence? Pull my weight? Be of value?!

I started by cleaning the groover (river trip port-o-potty).

I noticed that some of our most experienced boat guides were cleaning the shared toilet. So I asked them to show me how to set it up, clean it & break it down, then I took the lead the next day on teaching two more people how to do the same. Doing the unsexy task may be the most appreciated gesture you can make, and helping others strengthens relationships. And strengthening relationships strengthens the system.

An Invitation to be at Choice

I came to realize I had experienced this mindset before, without having a name for it, during times of company struggle, during layoffs, downturns, tough decisions and high risks. The distractions fade away and you feel the sense of commitment to your team, in the trenches, getting it done, giving it all you’ve got.

As Viktor Frankl beautifully said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

So my invitation to you: Own your impact. And drink your water!


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