Learning from the Camino
“The Camino is the ideal training ground for leaders.”
That’s the line on the back liner of the book jacket that pulled me into a surprising story. How to practice leadership with “a pilgrim’s heart, a wayfarer’s grit, and a navigator’s gift for reaching the destination.”
Reading leadership consultant Victor Prince’s book, The Camino Way: Lessons in Leadership from a Walk Across Spain , was a way to take that journey without actually walking that far. For the hours reading the book, I walked with Victor and took in the lessons and applications for leadership. Victor graciously talked with me about his journey. Before his leadership work, Victor Prince was previously the COO of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a strategy consultant with Bain & Company.
Make the Leadership Decision
Why did you decide to do the “Camino”?
I do long distance hiking and biking trails as a hobby. I focus on trails that are long and have accommodations along the way and don’t require camping. The Camino meets both those criteria, and I finally got to it when I was able to take a month off during a sabbatical. The Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez film, The Way, also got me interested. I knew the trail had ancient roots, and many people got an epiphany when walking it, but I was more focused on it as just the next trail I would check off my list.
You received a passport for your trip with 7 leadership lessons that struck you. As you made the journey, how did these impact you?
At first, I was focused on the main purpose of the pilgrim credential (pilgrim passport), which is to collect the stamps from hostels along the way to prove you walked the route. As a goal-driven over-achiever, I loved the daily sense of accomplishment I got with each nightly stamp. I only noticed the list of the 7 values pilgrims were asked to live by while on the Camino after a few days of walking. They captured the spirit I found in other pilgrims. They were simple things like, “Make others feel welcome,” and, “Think about those who will follow you.” They also struck me as exceptionally thoughtful values to follow even while off of the Camino. As I had alone-time walking, I reflected on how these values would have been helpful for me to live by in my past roles leading teams at work.
Would you share an example of how perspective can change on this journey?
One of the values is, “Welcome each day – its pleasures and challenges.” While walking an average of 15 miles per day for a month, a pilgrim on the Camino experiences many challenges as well as pleasures. I learned to put challenges into perspective. My most challenging day on the Camino came after a 24-mile day that resulted from a mistake in my planning. When I started the next morning, I was tired, sore and grumpy as I stared at a big hill I had to climb. It was a hot July day. I started to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew with this whole walk. ‘What on earth am I doing walking across Spain?’ I asked myself. I slogged on and when I got about halfway up the hill, I saw a marker for a pilgrim who had died on that spot. That put my challenges into perspective. I realized that, while this was my worst day on the trail, this adventure was something I knew would be difficult but that I had chosen to do. That made me realize that a bad day doing something I love is still a good day. When I got to the top of the hill, I snapped this picture which changed my life. I used this picture to headline my blog about the Camino that went viral around the world and led to this book. The fallen pilgrim named on the marker never made it to see that view, but he inspired me and I dedicated this book to him. The leadership lesson I learned from this is to put bad days at work into perspective. A bad day at work is better than a good day without a job.
7 Values to Live By
1: Welcome each day, its pleasures and challenges
2: Make others feel welcome
4: Live in the moment
5: Feel the spirit of those who have come before you
6: Appreciate those who walk with you today
7: Imagine those who will follow you
Lessons from the Camino
You also learned many of your own lessons on the Camino. Would you share a couple of these?
One big lesson I got was how completing a crazy adventure like walking across Spain gave me a surge of confidence that I could apply elsewhere. When faced with a challenge, I tell myself, “I walked across Spain; I can do this!” That confidence inspired me to check another item off of my aspirational goals – writing a book. When I got back from the Camino, I started putting a book idea on paper. That resulted in Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide their Teams to Exceptional, which I co-authored with Mike Figliuolo.
Another lesson I got from the Camino was the idea of, “Find others to find yourself.” People from all different walks of life from all over the world walk the Camino. Sharing an adventure makes it easy to meet other pilgrims. As I chatted with many new friends, I found myself describing myself in different ways. Things like company names and job titles don’t always mean much to people from other countries. Those conversations made me see the many job changes in my career in a new light. For example, I saw a common theme in all my jobs – I most enjoyed the parts where I got to teach others. That insight helped focus me on writing books and doing corporate training in my post-Camino career.
You say that you’re a different person after the experience. How did it change you? Was this all unexpected?
Before the Camino, I was a hard-charging person focused on counting rungs above and below me on the career ladder. My competitiveness sometimes came off as arrogance to others. By embracing the Camino’s pilgrim values, I became a more rounded person – more caring and present in the moment. I’m still driven by goals, but I try to think more broadly about how my work can help others, not just myself.
What did you learn from the Camino experience that you wished your younger self could have known?
At the beginning of my career, I was focused on my career trajectory – how far up I got and how rapidly. I viewed it as a race, and I kept score with things like job titles, prestigious brands on my resume, and pay. On the Camino, I realized that my journey wasn’t a race with other pilgrims. Pilgrims don’t get a grade on the Compostela certificate they get at the end. I wanted to experience my journey and not just reach my destination as fast as possible. I wish my younger self would have been more focused on doing things I felt fulfilled by, not just that I thought got me more points on an imaginary career scoreboard.
Find Your Own Camino
What does it mean to “find your own Camino”?
Walking across Spain is not for everyone. Many people may not have the ability, time or interest in a hiking adventure like that. I think everyone can get many of the same benefits by doing an adventure that offers some of the same elements that the Camino offers. Those elements include alone time for reflection, easy ways to meet new people, and stretching yourself to achieve something that sounds impossible. For some, that might mean doing a different sort of physical challenge. For others, it might mean finally doing a “bucket list” experience that is outside of your comfort zone.
I know the co-author of your other book. How was that book influenced by this experience?
The idea for my first book, Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide their Teams to Exceptional Results (Career Press, 2015), which I wrote with Mike Figliuolo, came out of the time for self-reflection during my Camino. During that alone time, I thought about how the lessons I was learning on the Camino would have been valuable in my career leading teams. From those recollections, I started seeing the patterns in employee performance and leadership needs that form the framework that book centers around.
Ironically, my partnership with Mike Figliuolo started while I was taking a sabbatical during my Camino. Two organizations emailed me while I was on the Camino to ask if I could do strategy training seminars for them. Since I was not able to help them because I was on the Camino, I connected them with Mike and his training company, thoughtLEADERS LLC. Mike and I had both done that training while working for the same financial services company. We had never met in person, but we knew of each other from that experience. Our partnership blossomed from that connection during the Camino, resulting in our book together and in me joining thoughtLEADERS LLC as an instructor. In a testament to the power of modern communications technology like Skype, Mike and I only met in person months after we had gotten the book deal together and were well into writing the manuscript.
For more information see The Camino Way: Lessons in Leadership from a Walk Across Spain .
Subscribe to Leadership Insights, the blog that transforms.
Join thousands of subscribers in the Leadership Insights community for a regular diet of ideas to fuel your success.
Thank you! Please check your email inbox to confirm your subscription.