The Yukon River MBA

Forget about getting an MBA. You can learn everything you need to succeed on the Yukon River. We just retraced Aurore of the Yukon's journey from Dyea to Dawson.

Forget about getting an MBA. You can learn everything you need to succeed on the Yukon River.

We just retraced Aurore of the Yukon’s journey from Dyea to Dawson, hiking the Chilkoot then paddling from Bennett to the Klondike.

Once my four kids got past the phase of wanting to kill their father for taking them on the epic journey, I was amazed to watch them learn a lot of the things you see in dry “organizational performance” textbooks. Even better, a person is more likely to remember something if they learn it in howling rain on a Yukon sandbar rather than a cozy university classroom.

Ambition. Expedition planning teaches you to have enough courage and enough fear, as the old saying goes. You want to strike for an audacious goal, but you have to stay grounded in what is actually achievable. Despite helicopters and satellite gadgets, you can’t rely on sending a text and getting rescued if you have bitten off more expedition than you can chew.

Planning. You only have to pack your raingear once at the bottom of a dry bag in the most remote kayak compartment to remember the importance of planning ahead. The planning you need for a Yukon trip teaches you how to plan in the rest of your life. You quickly realize how important it is to know how many kilometres you need to make in a day, how many calories per meal and to have the right equipment for various scenarios.

You also have to contingency plan, in case – for example – your cheap father has brought an old stove with a faulty pump. Having a backup stove prevents a lot of cold oatmeal breakfasts.

Flexibility. German military guru Helmuth von Moltke once said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. This is true in all fields, especially river travel. The weather changes, headwinds come and go, the current ends up slower than hoped and stuff breaks.

If the current is slower than hoped, you have to adjust your hours per day on the river. If what the map calls the “main channel” is covered with log piles, you need to go a different way. If you get soaked in frigid rain on Tagish Lake, you need to change plans and land to set up tents and get into warm clothes.

You need to learn how to identify problems early, come up with options, and make effective decisions.

Decisiveness. You don’t have the luxury of “analysis paralysis” on the river. The current is pushing you towards an island and you have to decide right or left. Unlike, say, that government affordable housing project whose cancellation was in the paper last week, you can’t spend six months deciding to go “left” and then change your mind to “right” at the last minute when someone shouts different advice at you.

That is how you and your boat end up stuck under a log pile on the end of a spit.

Grit. Perhaps the biggest lesson of a long wilderness trip is that you have to get up every morning and keep going. When you are behind schedule, the rain is horizontal, the headwind is rising and the current is slack, you must keep paddling.

If you don’t paddle, you won’t get there and you’ll run out of food. You can’t ask the teacher for an extension on your assignment, or your boss to make your assignment a bit easier.

At some points on our trip, we wondered how any of the stampeders made it to Dawson. Considering how much harder their journey was than ours, they were a constant source of wonder and inspiration.

Big trips also teach you about human dynamics. On the toughest days, even the toughest members of the team will want to give up. Hunger, cold and exhaustion make tempers flare. Hurtful things are thought and said. Minor disputes become major. This is where people learn how much they can help their team and themselves by staying positive, supportive and calm.

This is an important part of leadership, and an aspect of being a leader that is often underplayed in movies and popular culture.

People have recognized the value of Yukon River-type experience for a long time. Lord Baden-Powell made it a big part of the scouting movement a century ago. I know some successful businesspeople who believe their early careers as junior officers leading teams under pressure in their nation’s army or navy helped their business careers enormously.

It is good that Yukon high school students have lots of options to do outdoor leadership courses in our schools.

Sometimes I wonder if they shouldn’t open those courses up to adults too. I would really like to get a group of senior Ottawa officials and Harvard MBAs to Dyea and see how many make it to Dawson.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith