Learning how to be a leader can happen through a seminar, or through living life. Often, though, lessons in leadership happen everywhere, and sometimes against our will.

My first mistake was having a late night meeting, leaving my husband and children home alone. By the time I got home at 10:00 pm the trek had been planned--four days of hiking with two donkeys.

So, this is how I found myself in southern France, with two donkeys, Romeo and Gaspard. While I expected to be brayed at and to smell a bit like a donkey (this, unfortunately, happened), I was surprised at the management lessons I learned.

Managers are often thrown in with no training. The training we received for managing two donkeys consisted of about 15 minutes of instruction, focusing mostly on how to put the saddle on correctly. This seemed ridiculous to us. ("Do you have any experience with Donkeys?" "No." "Horses?" "No." "Okay.") But, this is pretty much the training I received when I got my first job managing people. ("Have you ever managed people?" "No." "Okay! You have 4 analysts and you'll share an admin!") And, lots of managers don't even get 15 minutes of management instruction. While we figured out how to manage donkeys and I learned how to manage people, lots of mistakes made at the beginning could have been avoided with some additional instruction.

We often promote the best worker to be the new manager, but then assume that someone who knows how to do knows how to manager. The skills aren't at all the same. Businesses could save a lot of time and money by training their managers before throwing them into the wilderness.

Not every employee needs to be managed closely, but some do. In our 15 minutes of training we were instructed to always hold the leads on the donkeys. Well, it turned out that if you dropped Romeo's rope, he'd just stop, but Gaspard? Well, if you held Gaspard's rope, he took it as a personal insult and responded by attempting to push you out of the way by sticking his nose in your behind. (This was also unpleasant.) We found out pretty early on, that if you lead Romeo, then Gaspard would just trott along after. So it is with employees. Some of them must be led through ever step, but many just need to be told what direction to go and they'll get there themselves. Mix up which type of person your employee is, and you'll get resentment and anger and less productivity. Get it right, and your journey is a lot smoother.

Lunch? Most important part of the day. Sure, your elementary school teacher told you that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, but in the work day, lunch is awfully important. Not just for the food, although that's important too, but for the break. You can push and push and push a donkey (they are hard workers), but we found that we and the donkeys were a lot happier after lunch than right before. Everyone got a break and a chance to do something other than move forward. Don't underestimate the importance of down time.

Your employees can only carry so much weight. Our donkey training instructed us that donkeys could only carry 40 kilograms (88 pounds). We thought that was ridiculous because we've seen donkeys carrying more, and when we were at Petra you could hardly turn without being offered a donkey ride, and plenty of tourists who weighed a lot more than 88 pounds were riding donkeys. "Must be some sort of French regulation," we said. So, we did the only logical thing: we Googled. And it turns out that donkeys can really only safely carry about 88 pounds, more or less depending on how big they are (and how fat the donkey is). But, we've seen them do more! We've seen it! So, why couldn't I climb on a donkey when I got tired? Because it turns out that donkeys will carry more weight--a lot more weight--but it cuts their life span. Donkeys that regularly carry heavy loads have a life span of 12-15 years, while donkeys that aren't pushed above their safety limits have a 30-50 year life span. Huge difference. Same with your employees. Some of them will take on any load you put, but eventually, they'll crack under the load and burn out. It's better to give a reasonable amount of weight and keep up productivity for the long haul.

What works today might not work for tomorrow. The first two days, the weather was chilly and rainy, and at the end of the day we had at least half of our water left over. So, on day 3, we brought the same amount of water we had the previous two days. But, that day turned out to be sunny and warm, and as a result, all our water was gone when we still had five kilometers to hike. This didn't bother the donkeys at all (we didn't carry water for them anyway, as they need very little), but it bothered us. We had a plan that had worked very well, and suddenly the conditions changed and it didn't work any more. You need to pay attention to the climate around you and prepare for changes before you end up running out of something critical with miles left to go.

Published on: Oct 13, 2014