From the VetPartners Experts: Leadership Lessons Learned on the Inca Trail

Sep 18, 2019 at 6:21 pm
Wendy Hauser, DVM

In late May 2019 my family and I hiked the terminal 27 miles of the Inca Trail, ending in Macchu Pichu. As a child, I heard vivid stories of Peru from my father, who grew up in the mountains outside of Lima. This trip was so much more to me than a vacation; it was a way to honor my father’s memory in the place that he most identified with, where he felt most at home.

As we planned this supported trek, I gave little thought to my expectations of our guides. I trusted that they would oversee the logistics of our pre-trek day trips and the three nights on the trail, get us from point to point safely, and provide some education about what we were seeing along the way. The last thing I expected was to observe actively reinforced leadership and clearly articulated mentorship!

Our guide, Edwin, was the best example of a leader that I have encountered. His motivation to help the indigenous population of the Sacred Valley was selfless and authentic. He worked individually with porters, almost all local to the area, to increase their proficiency in English and enhance their interactions with their clients, our group of 12. Edwin continually looked for ways to enhance and develop our assistant guide’s effectiveness, creating space for him to lead and teach us. When an emergency occurred within our group, Edwin calmly and proficiently managed the situation, while understanding and addressing the emotional impact the event had on the rest of us. He was thoughtful, engaging, and transparent in sharing his hopes for the future.

I feel privileged that I had the opportunity to watch Edwin as he took a group of 28 porters, one assistant guide, and 12 guests and created a cohesive team in less than seven days! What did Edwin do that was so impactful to his followers? How can those lessons be applied to our businesses to help create cohesive teams and great cultures? Edwin excelled in the following four leadership characteristics:

1: Authenticity

Edwin led from a place of authenticity. He knew who he was and what he believed in. He clearly aligned his personal beliefs and values to the roles of educating and growing each of his followers, including us. At the same time, he was interested in learning and understanding the perspectives of the individuals in the group.

  • How often do the leaders in your organizations ask questions about how the team is feeling and what they think?
  • Are the leaders in your company true to their core beliefs, resisting the temptation to compromise themselves for personal, professional, or financial gain?
  • How do the policies and procedures in your workplace align with and reinforce the values of the employees, enabling them to be authentic in their roles?

2: Vulnerability

Edwin was humble, truthful, and transparent in his actions and words. His vulnerability encouraged the group to be honest in the context of their feelings, challenges, and fears. It was by modeling this behavior that he was able take a group of strangers and generate the trust to create a unified team that could support and encourage each other.

  • How do the leaders in your organization show their vulnerability?
  • Does your team feel safe enough to ask each other for help, apologize when their actions or words are hurtful to another, and admit their mistakes?

3: Emotional culture

Edwin understood that as participants in a rigorous, prolonged trek in a remote area and outside our comfort zones we would have many emotions. He created the space and communication for the group to recognize and share what we were feeling. This was particularly important when two members of our group were unable to continue on the first day of the Inca Trail trek. By acknowledging the sadness we felt by their departure, the concern for their health and well-being, and the fears that we too might not be able to withstand the challenges of the trek, he was able to understand and shape the emotions in the group to the benefit of all.

  • How do the leaders in your company recognize and manage emotions in the workplace?
  • What role does each team member play in creating an emotional culture that supports the values of the organization?

4: Passion

Edwin had studied Civil Engineering at college, but found that his heart lay in the Sacred Valley, teaching others about the rich history of the Incan Civilization. He has used his career as a Guide to not only touch the lives of countless tourists, but also to enrich the well-being of the Incan population living within the Sacred Valley. He has created a rich training ground and pathway for porters to earn Tourism certificates, becoming guides themselves. He is establishing his own company, which will center on home stays with local Incan families for a more immersive experience.  He is building a community center where the wives of the Incan porters will cook culturally authentic meals for travelers booked through his company. Finally, he is creating an educational exchange, where tourists can teach languages in a local school and receive a discount on their trekking experience.

Edwin’s passion for Incan community and its history, lands, and people is his “why;” it is his purpose, cause, and belief. The product of his passion will be making the lives of the Incan families in the Sacred Valley more sustainable, as climate change and tourism threaten their existence.

  • How does your passion make a difference in your community? In the lives of your coworkers, clients, and patients?
  • How do your leaders model the organizational beliefs of the company?
  • How do employees model the beliefs of your company? Do you as an employee know what those beliefs are?

The role of mentorship

Edwin understood the importance and the transformative power of mentorship. He consistently sought out ways to create learning experiences for the porters and Miguel, our assistant guide. An example was when he asked our permission to have a porter spend time one evening practicing his English language skills. Edwin understood the barriers to becoming conversational in English. He had a six-month course in English verbal skills, which was insufficient to be able to converse adequately with clients. A self-starter, he took the initiative while serving as an assistant guide to ask for help from the guests who spoke English and became highly proficient in the language. Edwin’s commitment as a mentor to this young man was to help open doors that would help him to succeed.

His work with Miguel ranged from teaching in-depth history, flora, and fauna facts to more practical lessons, such as where to stand to get the best picture of the group. He provided immediate and private feedback after Miguel had taken the lead on explaining the significance of historical sites. Edwin did not wait for his followers to ask for help, he offered help when and where it was impactful. His mentorship was never overbearing or demeaning; it was offered in the spirit of lifting up and strengthening his followers.

Mentorship is often looked at through the lens of furthering career development. There is some research to suggest that mentorship is most beneficial when it is approached from a more holistic aspect. When mentorship of the entire person is undertaken, discussions about values and behaviors outside of career development can occur. Understanding these values and behaviors are integral in helping people realize their full potential. Mentorship is about empowering your followers to bring out the best in themselves.

  • What is the role of mentorship in your company?
  • How does your company encourage mentor/mentee relationships?
  • What guidelines exist to help each person understand their role in the mentor/mentee relationship?

Leaders like Edwin are not accidental in nature, but have followed paths that have led to their ability to find purpose in their actions and commitment to their vision. They are quick to praise, and ask clarifying questions when things don’t go as planned. They give credit to the group, rather than seeking it themselves. They recognize the value in helping others reach their potential, and derive personal satisfaction when their followers succeed. Like leadership lessons learned on the Inca Trail, where will your leadership path lead you?


Looking for a leader to help elevate your practice to new heights of success? Find a VetPartners consultant here.

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Wendy Hauser, DVM, is AVP, Veterinary Relations, Crum & Forster Pet Insurance Group. In 2015, she established Peak Veterinary Consulting after working as an industry technical services veterinarian. With a DVM from OK State in 1988, she has practiced for 30 years as an associate, owner, and relief veterinarian. She is highly engaged in AAHA leadership and currently serves as the AAHA delegate to the AVMA House of Delegates. She is the co-author of "The Veterinarian's Guide to Healthy Pet Plans."

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