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Leadership and survival: 7 lessons on servant leadership

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What I learned about leadership and survival and myself during a five days and five nights survival experience in rainy Scotland. My 7 lessons on servant leadership.

I don’t think I fully understand the extent to how it has transformed me just yet.

I was confronted with myself, my resilience, team work and leadership.
And how to be a servant leader is a darn good question that came up a few times.

It was magical.

Yet, before it was magical, we nearly failed.

This is my attempt to share this incredible experience including my contribution to our near failure as well as to our success.

The wonderful hills, sheep and unpredictable weather of Scotland in Autumn

We left basecamp at 7.30 AM on a Tuesday morning in October 2022

The weather forecast: rain, rain and more rain.

Our designated spot in an unknown Scottish forest was eagerly awaiting our arrival.

I was one of eleven people: three women and eight men, seven Dutch and four French. We were divided into three teams and I was part of the one team of three people. Before we set out, we had to weigh ourselves.At the end of this blog you will know what I gained from this experience and how many kilos I lost 😉

Plus, that morning we weren’t allowed to have any breakfast or drink before we headed out.

Our packing list was short

We each carried
– a knife
– a one liter billycan
– 8 artificial fishing lines with 8 artificial hooks
– 8 natural lines & 8 natural hooks (in my case: triple twined nettle cordage and hawthorn and bone hooks)

Please note that we did not bring sleeping bags, food, water, firesteel, tinder or rain gear. On the other hand, we did have an emergency bag including a medical kit, radio and 1 headlamp per team.

The following Sunday, we returned to basecamp at 10.00 AM.

I came out of the woods feeling deeply fulfilled, immensely connected to nature and with a big smile on my face.

With all my heart I can now say: I did it.

But, we nearly failed on day one

At 5 PM on day one, we did not yet have fire and our shelter was not even half-way done. Whatever the reason, we were heading towards a massive failure.

Think: a cold, wet and rainy night sleeping outside with no protection and no fire.

Fire in our shelter on a long, stormy and rainy night

What happened on day one?

Looking back, we can safely say we did not operate as a team.

Yes, we had a plan but we didn’t stick to it. And interestingly enough, to date we disagree on what really happened on day one.

Furthermore, we did not know each other well enough. Certainly not in regards to our quitte opposing characters. As a result, we weren’t able to immediately compensate our different ways of working. We approached our shared end-goal in pretty much complete opposite ways.

It wasn’t for lack of skills: we simply didn’t operate as a team.

Day one was about learning the hard way that leadership and survival go hand in hand.

Leadership and survival: 7 lessons in how to be a servant leader
We operated as a bunch of quirky individuals

Our quirky team of three

We were a bunch of three … eh … fascinating characters.

My two buddies are officially autistic.As they told me themselves and were quite open about it, I feel free to share this information here. In addition, I will not disclose their names, nor include them in any of the photos I share in this blog. Finally, it is relevant in the context of our experience in the woods.

I now believe one of them to also be gifted with an IQ of 130+ alongside being in possession of an indescribable amount of energy. He’d wake up, start running and talking and wouldn’t stop until he fell asleep.

Unless… as we laughingly discovered on our last night, he was fed a rosehip full of seeds which take forever to separate from the rosehip-edible-fruit-bit.

My other buddy was his opposite: working silently in a slow, steady and solitary pace, always aiming for perfection.

And then there was me. I’m what you might call an extroverted people and team-oriented Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), a term first coined by Elaine Aron. And, as I am discovering bit by bit, probably gifted too.

My contribution to our near failure?

Number 1 – Childhood

In my childhood, I wasn’t exactly a playing-around-in-the-woods-and-getting-dirty-kinda-kid. Rather the opposite: I was an avid book reader (and still am). Because we moved a lot, I went to 5,5 different primary schools and pretty much stuck to myself. I was a sportive kid alright, loving and practising horseback riding, field hockey, skiing and hiking. But those did not involve getting dirty …

In addition, I seem to have been born with an innate and inexplicable fear of water and sand. A regular outing to the beach was not exactly a treat for me as a kid. For many years, I was horrified by the idea of having to walk barefoot on sand. My entire body would literally cringe at the very thought.

Henceforth, an overwhelmingly new world opened up when I started taking Bushcraft courses. Which, of course and especially in Scotland, includes getting wet and dirty. Plus, learning so many new outdoor skills often felt like learning 16+ languages at the same time.

Slowly but surely and literally step by step, I dare to walk barefoot in nature


What outdoor skills am I learning?

How to handle knives and axes for tool making and other uses, understanding the types of wood and fire you need for different purposes, being able to make fire under all circumstances, all kinds of natural materials and their uses, knots, basha aka tarp setups, cooking & baking on open fire, crossing rivers, tanning various skins and turning deer and fish skins into buckskin and leather. Plus, crafts like wood working, recognising tracks & bird sounds, finding food involving knowing plants, mushrooms and digging up roots, leaving no trace when you leave the woods, and much much more. 

Read the Bushcraft Handboek by my instructors (Dutch only). 

Number 2 – Limiting belief

Probably the most harmful however, was that during the yearlong course I took to prepare for this week, I started to think I was lacking behind in skills. Certainly compared to the rest of the group.

I somehow ended up creating this limiting belief in my head that I simply wasn’t as good/fast/handy/strong/creative (etc.) as the others.

PS. I already believed that you should never ever compare yourself to anyone else. But now I know this to be true at an existential level.

Please don’t. Under no circumstances compare yourself to anyone else.
Being who you are is truly the only thing that matters.

Number 3 – Leadership

I’ve been a proces, project and program manager for most of my career. Subsequently, I realised pretty quickly that we were heading for disaster. At least as far as building a shelter and making fire on day one.

My limiting belief that I wasn’t as good as the others – at bushcraft – kept me from stepping up as a leader.

When our first firebow drill resulted in a coal, but no fire, I knew we weren’t doing it the right way. Sadly enough, this inner voice told me they probably know better. Similarly, when one of my buddies complained about the supposed lack of wood & leaves to build our shelter, I tried to convince and show him otherwise but I wasn’t successful.

I turns out that when I entered the woods that first morning, I loooved it. But, I also wasn’t convinced that I could lead in the woods – yet.

Fortunately, the woods are a great teacher on servant leadership.

Making fire with a firebow
Another time & place: blowing a firebow coal into fire


Have you ever listened to the music of mating owls?

Eventually, we slept well in our cosy and warm shelter. Our beds made up of fern leaves - which grew thicker and thicker as each morning we added a new layer. Our shelter was surrounded by impressive beech and spruce trees, and a thick foliage of ferns. 

Several nights we lay still listening to the music of mating owls flying closely over our heads. 

Pure magic.
Leadership and survival: 7 lessons in how to be a servant leader
Our shelter made of wooden branches, moss/sods, beech leaves and ferns.

My contribution to our success?

Number 4 – Resilience

I already knew that I handle emergencies quite well. And that I am pretty resilient when push comes to shove.

How did this show in the woods? E.g.

  • I quickly had a Plan B (and even a Plan C) in case our shelter wouldn’t be finished in time. Several fallen trees had created moon-shaped dry spots underneath the feet of their tree trunks. Great places to spend a night.
  • I knew I had to send my buddy down the hill when his headache was too bad. He was on the verge of throwing up. And I was not upset because of it but knew he needed help.
  • When it hit me that my limiting belief was at play, I immediately realigned when I realised it was hurting me and us as a team.
  • I remained calm, driven, focused as well as positive throughout the entire week.
  • I never lost sight of the intentions with which I entered this experience: to enjoy my time in the woods and take each moment as it presented itself, including the first day.
  • Similarly, with one of us tending to our precious fire once we got it going on day one, I continued in the dark with my other buddy to finish our hut as best as we could for our first night.
  • And after we were done with that, I stayed outside on my own to prepare our wood for the night. We needed different sizes and types of wood to feed our fire throughout the night. I loved doing this, still had the energy and we needed it.


Our main staple during our survival week?

While I was preparing our wood for the first night, my two buddies were cooking. 

Because yes, during all of our wondrously interesting first day, we did manage to find food. We collected several edible mushrooms and picked nettles.Please note that we were only allowed to eat the food we collected after it was approved by our instructors. We had radio contact twice a day and they came by once a day to check in on us and approve our collected foods. Especially in the case of mushrooms this is a must for obvious safety reasons. 

Before we went to sleep on day one, we devoured a tasty soup!

A list of what we ate: 

Limpets, mussels, roots, green edibles of all sorts like regular and clover sorrel, loads of pretty sour berries and apples that we had to cook and mix with the sweeter rosehips and brambles to be edible, as well as cantharel and other mushrooms. 
Leadership and survival: 7 lessons in how to be a servant leader
A colourful collection of food

Number 5 – Servant leadership

Management is doing things right.

Leadership is doing the right things.

Servant leadership is leading from a place of awareness.
Another term I like to use in Dutch is volhoudbaar leiderschap which I translate as heartcore leadership in English.

The servant-leader is servant first…
It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.

Robert K. Greenleaf

Many a time, I have shown leadership in the projects & programs, coach sessions, sports, volunteer work and other team efforts.

And it might come across as overbearing to some, which it certainly isn’t meant to be, but…

Over the years, I have come to realise that it comes naturally to me to be a servant leader. Caring deeply about serving and contributing to what is right, good and needed for all involved is part of my DNA.

Despite not stepping up right away on day one – as a limiting belief was holding me back … once I understood how deeply different we were as individuals, it was at once clear that it was me who needed to change my approach to make our team work.

Being the most people and team-oriented compared to my two buddies who were mainly task oriented, I needed to step up my way of operating, which included amongst other things putting aside for the time being my desire for a deeper and spiritual team connection. I would have to find this connection elsewhere. Fortunately, that is exactly what Nature can provide.

Leadership and survival is all about servant leadership.

What does it mean to be a servant leader?

On the one hand, I truly believe that adaptability, flexibility and awareness of the collective team consciousness are all part of servant leadership.

Yet, sometimes a certain amount of directive leadership may also be required of a servant leader.

On our last morning we absolutely needed a plan of approach. We always have to leave the woods without anyone being able to see we were there. It means giving our shelter back to the woods and making our tracks invisible.

But. My buddies weren’t going to make a plan.

One of them had already admitted on day two: I simply cannot and will not work with a plan.

I will do what needs to be done, but I will not make a plan.

He uttered his surprise when he found out during the week that I do not care about deviating from a plan at all. Flexibility and planning are two sides to the same coin as far as I am concerned. I just had a far greater need to deciding anything we were going to do – together – than he did.

The other was pretty clear too:

I focus on one thing and simply go for it.

This time however, we needed to divide various tasks or we’d end up in the same chaotic whirlwind and not-so-successful efforts of day one all over again.

I decided to question my two buddies to make sure we had a list of all that needed to be done. They did not like my prodding but I kept at it.

Then I simply divided the three most distinct yet important tasks amongst us.

  1. Extinguishing our firepit – which required an enormous amount of water that needed to be collected from a stream down the road.
  2. Burying left-over shells at sea – which won’t decay in the woods for years to come – and which required a walk to the sea.
  3. Cleaning up the massive amount of ferns we’d harvested for our beds and shelter – far more than natural for the location of our shelter.

The rest was straightforward: take our shelter down and make sure no one could see we lived here for a week.

This time, we made it in time and all three of us were comfortable and happy with the task we took upon us.

A job well done.

The entrance to our shelter with a view on our firepit

7 Lessons for servant leadership

1. Know yourself

In the woods there is no escape, space or time for childhood fears or limiting beliefs.

In my case, this entire experience forced me to surrender to nature.

Only to discover that I love searching for shrimps, crabs and limpets. To find out that connecting to nature with my bare feet e.g. on my bed of fern leaves, is great!

In addition, I had to release my limiting belief in a supposed lack of bushcraft skills. I now know that I really and truthfully know enough. Nothing that needed to get done this week was out of my league. No-thing.

As a matter of fact – and much to my own surprise – within two weeks of returning, I registered to partake in the next solo experience … if and when our instructors will organise it again.

Leadership is being in the moment
In our shelter, feeling the cosy warmth of our fire.

2. Serve the team

Our instructors taught us to always have a plan.

Plus a plan B for that matter. In addition, several times that week they stressed the importance of sticking to your plan. Being very people and team-oriented, I’m used to doing this – as a team.

This week though, I had to let go of making and sticking to plans.

Let’s talk fishing.

The tides were not in our favour the first few days. It meant we had to go out at 2 and 4 AM in the morning to set up and check our lines.

My buddies’ character traits meant planning & prepping for a Plan A, B or C simply would not work.

As a team, we decided that instead we would be prepared to take action in the moment. We would trust our skills and knowledge to know what would be the right action in each moment. And we’d run the risk of being unprepared.

Leadership and survival: 7 lessons in how to be a servant leader
We carried our metal fishing hooks on a rotten piece of mossy birch (8 per person)

3. Be fully present

You’re no good as a leader when you are tired, upset, cold, stressed, irritated, traumatised, self-centered, envious, ambitious at a cost etcetera. This list is as long and varied as there are leaders in this world.

Because when you are physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually otherwise occupied, you are not available to your team.

When you are not present, you simply cannot be a good leader.

You do not need to know the most, be the best or have answers to all questions, but you need to be present, and wholeheartedly so.

Because you need to have the time, patience and space in your span of attention to listen to your team members and hear what they say, mean and need, also that which remains unspoken, the undercurrent.

One night I found myself being irritated.

I realised I needed to sleep rather than vent my lack of sleep on my buddies.

4. Take care of yourself

In my case, alongside sleep, it also meant that on our last afternoon, I took a break from searching for brambles and rosehips.

I needed some time to enjoy where I was.

A moment to relish in this rugged landscape, the birds, the sounds of the ocean and to let the wind gently touch my face. Put differently, I needed to connect to our magical place on my own terms.

Fortunately, it was the sunniest and most wonderful day of the entire week.

I sat myself down on a rock overlooking the bay that had provided us with so much food, fun and frustration.None of the three teams in my survival week caught any fish.

Contrary to one week earlier when three different teams who were undergoing the same survival experience - each - caught - fish!

Of course we were not jealous at all.

And bathed my face, my hands and my heart in the sunlight. At the same time taking deep breaths and recharging my battery, realising that all week as well as this moment, I was completely at peace.

Leadership means taking care of yourself
A beautiful place to recharge my batteries and take care of myself.

5. Connect to nature

I strongly believe and more so after this week, that leadership benefits from having a regular practise that includes connecting to nature.

Whenever I had to kill a crab, shrimp of limpet to use as bait, I would apologize out loud for taking their lives.

My buddies thought I was nuts.

But the shrimps literally shrunk two sizes in my hands as I pierced them onto the metal fishing hooks. It hurt to hurt them and seeing their tiny glassy bodies bending over in shock. I continued as I was here to learn and to (co-)provide for our team, but I was deeply moved at the same time.

One of the crabs even managed to survive 48 (!) hours on a hook.

When I finally released it on our last day, I put it down on the sand. To my surprise, it dug itself a hole and at once disappeared on me. It turned out to still be alive!!

Leadership benefits from connecting to nature
One of the crabs I ‘killed’ and used as bait – survived 48 hours on the line

I thanked the trees, the bushes, the birds and the animals of the sea as well as the fruits and the roots we ate. Every single one of them contributed to my time in the woods. Our well-being had depended on these natural beauties.

Nature is cyclical by nature.

You just have to look at the seasons, eb and flow and the cycle of life and death.

And for just a brief almost suspended moment in time,
these five days and five nights,
we became a part of this magical natural world.


Have you ever seen a running otter?

I was too late to take a picture but I watched an otter run through the wet and slippery rocks. He then jumped onto the sand, ran in his typical gracious gait and disappeared into the water. 

Pure magic.

Connecting to nature is important as we are nature ourselves

Leadership and survival showed me more than ever before that we are very much a part of nature, indeed even nature ourselves!

We are not robots behind computers living 24hr-indoor lives. Sure, we may pretend we are by the way most of us are living our lives, but we’re not.

Otherwise, how come you feel jubilant, rejuvenated and happy after having been on holiday and/or having spent time outdoors?

Not because you are a robot, but because you are nature, you are just as much nature as the woods I spent five days and nights in, living off the land.

The more we are connected to nature, the more we come alive and the more we are able to be connected to all living beings around us. Including our own team.

6. Everyone is a leader

The mating owls, the limpets, the rosehips and the fern leaves – each and every element in nature is a naturally born leader.

A one of a kind leader.

And so are you.

You are the leader of your own life.

Simpler put:

If not you, then who?
If not now, when?

Hillel, 1st century Jewish scholar

This also means that everyone around you is a leader, even if you don’t think so.

If you can appreciate the leadership that your buddies, your teammates and everyone around you is showing, life and living and working together becomes much more fun.

They may not operate as you do, but they are still leaders in their own right.

All three of us were needed this week to make it a succes. See my note below too.

7. Connect to that magic moment of now

I learned that surviving is truly about consciously working with the land and what it provides.

It is about living off the land and as such all about living in the now.

And I experienced that leadership is also about being in the moment.

Plans and being prepared, having been trained and having skills are helpful, but being fully present in the moment is what makes the difference.

It’s about being me and being conscious of all of me including limiting beliefs and fears.

Leadership and survival during our week in the woods, was about being able to hear myself and my buddies and my surroundings. And to respond to what was collectively needed in the present moment.

Leadership and survival: 7 lessons in how to be a servant leader
The most impressive of grandmother Beech tree we passed by on our way to the beach

Important note

Before you think after reading my blog that I did not like my two buddies, or that I was the only leader or better at servant leadership in the team.

Think again.

Absolutely not.

If we had to do it all over again, we would.
As well as in the same team constellation.
Despite our differences.
Day one wasn’t easy, because we are so different.
But know that each one of us showed servant leadership at different moments in time.
Be it over the fire, cooking, collecting fire wood, walking to the beach at 3 in the morning and more.

Madeleine Boerma van Het zakelijke hart na vijf dagen en vijf nachten overleven in een Schots bos
Fresh out of the woods with a big grin after 5 days and 5 nights. Oh my, I enjoyed it.


Upon our return we weighed ourselves again.

I lost three kilos but gained a lifetime of understanding about leadership, survival and myself.

And I can only hope that one day you get to experience the magic of living off the land too.

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4 gedachten over “Leadership and survival: 7 lessons on servant leadership”

    • Hej René, met alle grote dank aan jou en Beke. Life will never be the same again na alles wat ik bij jullie heb mogen leren. En ik ben pas net begonnen met leren. In mijn eigen tempo, stapje voor stapje, houtje voor houtje, vuurtje voor vuurtje. Een ding: het smaakt naar heel veel meer…

  1. Heeeey dear Madeleine, what a gift, this story. Thank you so much. Wow, truly inspirational and written so vividly. I felt literally there, in the woods with you. Amazing experience, I can imagine. Especially the fire making must be extremely magical I can imagine: to breath life into one of the elements with whatever is there and thus reassuring yourself to be more likely to survive. Thank you!!!! for showing us how nature really offers everything we need, when it comes to the purity of being. Lots of love. Nynke


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