Digest: Just Lead

This is Digest: A focused update on an undefined topic of my choosing. Published almost every Friday Saturday.

After our lunch at the top of the Sierra Madre del Sur just outside Petatlán, Mexico, our ATVs pulled over on the side of the road about one-third of the way down the mountain. We got off and walked through the front yard of a family’s home. We were about to take a hike through the jungle to a waterfall somewhere in the middle of the mountain.

Johnny—our hotel bartender turned tour guide—sped to the front of the group, motioned a quick ¡hola! to the family who was sitting casually in the front yard, led us around the side of the house past an extremely proud rooster, and straight through to the back yard into an expansive field full of cattle.

While I toyed with Amanda’s camera trying to get formal portraits of the cows, I stepped in a cow pie or two (spoiler, if you’re not familiar with country lingo: cow pies aren’t like “apple pie,” you may not want to Google that), and tried to keep my eye on the bull laying near the edge of the creek that ran through the field. Thankfully, I wasn’t wearing red. Wouldn’t want to tempt Ferdinand.

“Left foot first, then right when you go around these rocks,” Johnny yelled out.

“You can take off your sandals and walk directly through the creek, or jump from that rock to that rock to that rock,” he said, perched on the side of the hill pointing at the rocks he was referencing.

“Walk on the thin dirt path through the field—it’s harder to see sometimes, but the big path leads nowhere.”

That last line sounds philosophical and I guess you can take it that way if you want to. But he meant it literally: the literal big path literally lead nowhere.


What caught my attention about how Johnny led is that he didn’t always stay in front of our fifteen-person crew: if anybody mentioned having trouble or he noticed they were hiking incorrectly, he immediately went to them to offer help or a suggestion.

He would always direct the group with his voice, but sometimes that voice came from the front, sometimes from the middle, other times from the very back.

Sometimes he was talking to benefit one person, other times he was talking to all of us.

But he was the leader, no matter where he was in line.
Not because he proved anything before we started hiking.
Not because of some title he held.

He was the leader

Leadership is hard to define because everybody leads differently, and everyone is led differently.

Leadership is also hard to accept because most of us are, rightly, skeptical of authority; we’ve all seen what happens when you trust somebody without questioning their motives or the integrity of their information, and it’s not always good.

But leadership is necessary and unavoidable, whether you’re part of a nation, a business, a hike, a family, or simply trying to better yourself.

It’s necessary and unavoidable because, as people, collectively and individually, we’re not stagnant. We’re always growing, for better or worse.

We grow when we rally behind a vision of the future, and that vision compels us to act. Yes, that vision is an aggregate and contains thoughts that come from all of us, but is typically channeled through somebody: that person is the leader.

I believe we’re all leading something, we’re all leading someone, and we’re all going somewhere, whether we know it or not.

I believe leadership doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

Here are a few articles and quotes about how “leadership” doesn’t always have much to do with your position or power, and about what good and effective leadership looks like. Continue reading “Digest: Just Lead”

Digest: Experience Over Observation

This is Digest: A focused update on an undefined topic of my choosing. Published almost every Friday Saturday.

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” As my wife and I sit side-saddle, opposite each other on an ATV going up a mountainside just outside a little town in Mexico called Petatlán, I couldn’t agree more.

Our driver’s name is Manuel and, though I took the required two years of Spanish in high school and have spent quite a bit of time in Mexico, I don’t understand much of what he’s saying.

“Something something this is where they grow the coffee.”
“Those are something something trees.”
“Something something pineapple something something.”

There are moments where I think I understand everything he’s saying, and moments where I know I understand nothing. Thankfully my wife has retained most of the Spanish she learned, so she’s able to translate between Manuel and I.

After spending an hour and a half holding on for dear life as we bounced around, always dangerously close to the edge of the trail, our fifteen-person crew and entourage of five ATVs made it to the top of the Sierra Madre del Sur to tour a rural farm and eat lunch with the family that tends it.

As we pulled up to what felt like it had to be the last house on the mountain, we were greeted by a gaggle of dogs, cats, goats, chickens, a rooster and a pig—some curious and craving attention, others very concerned (the pig was beside himself, trying, unsuccessfully, to hide underneath a few banana leaves). After the stampede subsided, the patriarch, Jesus (fitting name for a mountaintop patriarch, right?), made his entrance, walking up to each of us with a limp to give us a hug.


As you would expect for a mountaintop home first built in the early 1900s, its construction is rather sparse. A collection of buildings, really. One large building, a single room that serves as the family’s main living quarters. A large half-indoor, half-outdoor room that looks like it’s used as a church of some kind. A kitchen and dining room that’s indoor but surrounded mostly by chicken-wire screens so it feels like you’re outdoors. And what I’ll call—for lack of a better way to describe it—a siesta room full of hammocks, a card table, and the family’s stash of homemade wine (this was my favorite room, obviously). Jesus is quick to point out their new 18″ TV, DVD, and speaker system, though he’s also quick to point out that, because they’re so high up in the mountains, they don’t get much picture out of it, only audio. They’re just happy they can at least listen to fútbol at home now.

After a quick tour of the facilities, we walk to another corner of the grounds, where he shows us their coffee plants, explaining why he stopped selling to commercial buyers like Starbucks. Apparently, for Jesus, Starbucks tries to buy at a lower price than it takes him to produce and distribute, so the coffee is now only produced for family and friends that live on or near the mountain. Same goes for his cocoa; he makes over 100 kilograms per year, but has to be highly selective about where he sells it and who he sells it to, so he doesn’t spend more on distribution than he does on production.

It’s a lesson in basic corporate economics: Spend less than you take in, and only on a product you actually make, and can actually make you money.

A lesson most entrepreneurs I know could surely learn and thing or two from.

Turns out, this mountain is an entire economy of its own. Locals buying and selling to locals. Somebody tends the ganado (cattle). Another grows maíz (corn), another arroz (rice), another frijoles (beans). Jesus and his family are responsible for café, chocolate, medicinals and herbs.

And this is what I love about traveling. It’s one thing to walk into a conference and learn something about the world with your designer Nikes, your iPad in a DodoCase, and a name-tag slapped on your chest. It’s another thing entirely to be bone-tired, having practically dragged yourself out of bed at 6am, wearing some crappy old running shoes, chugging coffee, and being strapped to an ATV and driven up a mountainside by somebody you’ve never met and whose language you don’t speak.

Doing things you’ve never done is how you learn about the world, and doing those things in a culture you’ve heard or read about is how you learn that you don’t understand as much as you think you do.

Some people say travel is about finding yourself. I say it’s about finding yourself in other people. Culture is, in fact, made up of people who are just like you, but just different enough to—hopefully—teach you something.

Empathy is, after all, experience, not observation.

It’s experiencing firsthand
and the mundane,
and realizing that we’re all experiencing varying degrees of something that can only be described as… human.

You can’t learn that on the Internet.
You can’t learn that from somebody else’s experience.
You can only truly learn that by going.

After the tour we played a rousing game of dominos, then sat around the family table, eating homemade tortillas, beans, sopes, chicharones (fried pig skin) in tomato sauce, and a seasonal squash salad. We drank homemade wine, coconut water and coffee, and I ate like un cerdo feliz.

Bottom line: you (read: we) should get out more.

Last week’s Digest focused on the start-up economy and was a bit more on the serious side. This week, I think you should get out from behind your desk—or at least plan some time to make that happen this year—so here are some articles and quotes about the whimsical world we live in: Continue reading “Digest: Experience Over Observation”