Columbia Business School

What a Patagonia Trek Taught Me About Leadership: Embracing Uncertainty and 3 Other Lessons

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4 Leadership Lessons A Patagonia Trek Taught Me - Ivy Exec Blog

Some students refer to this trip as “Patagucci,” the implication being that an opportunity to earn three academic credits while hiking in the Chilean wilderness must be a business school boondoggle.

I’m fairly sure the mental image conjured by most people is of a bunch of students decked head-to-toe in Patagonia mountaineering apparel, sitting around a campfire with marshmallows, singing camp songs. The reality was very different. As arduous as the journey was, each of us came back grateful for the experience. What’s more, we walked (or in some cases, hobbled) away with some important takeaways on leadership and team dynamics.

Embrace uncertainty — don’t avoid it.

There were so many moments when we faced risky and unpredictable situations. We had to make decisions with very little information. We’d start out on a promising route and have to change our strategy partway through because the way we’d chosen was impassable. In some sense, this was the way in which the trip was most analogous to the business world — leaders face constant uncertainty in daily operations. Sometimes the greatest measure of the leader is not how well they plan but how well they adapt to circumstances.

Facts vs. the narrative

In every situation, there are the objective facts and the story we tell ourselves about those facts. E.g., we’ve been hiking for six hours. My pack is roughly half of my body weight. My feet are blistering in my sodden boots. These are all indisputable things that are happening — we have no control over the facts. The question becomes: will we choose to look for the best in a situation, or the worst? Some of the most effective leaders in history are those who are able change the course of events just by shaping the narrative around them.

When you make a decision, own it.


On my day as designated leader, I had a lot of doubt regarding whether I was making the best decisions for the group, or if there was a better option. I felt personally responsible for the well-being of my team and wanted to make the day as smooth and easy as possible for them. That was not to be! I had to do the best I could with the information I had and then stand by that choice and not second-guess it. No one wants to follow a leader who is constantly apologizing for their decisions or wishing they had done something differently. Leaders should learn from their mistakes but should also be able to distinguish between mistakes and circumstances beyond their control.

Your team is crucial.

We had a lot of really tough days during this expedition. Each of us was tested in different ways. No matter how bad things got, I always knew I could rely on the people in my group. I was so grateful to be part of a team that worked every day to be positive, supportive, and helpful to one another. There were days when it was so hard to stay optimistic, or even be pleasant, and hardly anyone complained, even despite great hardship. Our success was due to everyone’s positivity, selflessness, and work ethic. I realized how crucial it will be throughout my career to have a good team to fall back on when times are hard.

As challenging as the trip was, I miss it. There was a beautiful simplicity in having to do nothing more than get from point A to point B in a day. There was a sense of pride and resilience. There was a daily feeling of gratitude. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and also one of the most rewarding.

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Weiland ’19 participated in the Chazen Institute’s Global Immersion Program to Patagonia for 14 days in January 2019.

Read the original piece on Columbia Business School’s Ideas and Insights blog. 

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