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Leaders can learn from a safari guide who sees ‘behind the trees’

Nametsegang Dihoro, a photo-safari guide who sees animals where others don’t.
Nametsegang Dihoro, a photo-safari guide who sees animals where others don’t.

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Botswana on a photo safari. There were elephants and lions, bee-eaters and saddle-billed storks, monitor lizards and baobab trees that expand when they soak up water. Even for a nonzoologist, the safari was nirvana.

One of the best parts, though, was learning from the guides.

On our last night in Duma Tau camp, guide Nametsegang (aka “Name”) Dihoro took us on a riverboat ride to watch elephants crossing and see the sunset. As he was giving six of us a lecture on the Okavango Delta area, he stopped midsentence.

“I’ve never seen this before.”

Name rarely shows excitement, because, frankly, over his six years working as a guide, he had seen just about all there was to see. But he was stunned.

He pointed to a pride of 14 lions walking along the riverbank, heading toward our camp. He radioed the camp’s manager so people could get away from the pool, the tents and the floating dock, since the lions were just a couple of hundred yards away. He took photos and moved closer to the bank for a better look. Five of the lions did go into the camp, walked past our tents and kept on going. The others verged off and headed into the brush.

Name never expected to see lions so close to a major body of water and had never seen so many headed straight for the camp. The rest of us were almost unfazed. (No, we were actually quite happy to be far out in the water, safely away from the lions). But we had no inkling of how unusual this sighting was until we saw Name’s reaction.

Lesson for me: Experts notice in ways different from novices.

One other example made the point even more directly. I asked Name how he finds animals in the bush, especially ones that are camouflaged by the grass and trees.

“I used to think of the grass and trees as a wall, a barrier to seeing animals,” he said. “I looked into the trees and couldn’t find them. But now I look ‘behind’ the trees and the grass and see animals all over the place.”

As Name described it, he has practiced his skills and reached a point where he sees and senses what’s “behind” a tree. He said he had started spending time in the bush as a child and by 6-7 years old had gotten good at tracking. Later, as a “guide in training,” he shadowed an experienced person for several months.

But it was only when he began spending a lot of time alone in the wilderness — looking, listening, and reflecting on what was around him — that that he began to “see” what the rest of us couldn’t.

That’s a lesson for leaders in business. Perhaps Name’s ability is akin to the notion of spending “10,000 hours” to hone a skill. But I would also argue if we really listen, “look” and reflect deeply on what we’re experiencing or learning in business, we will become better faster at seeing what others might not.

When someone you know (or you) mentions “seeing” something in the environment or a change in customers, be sure to notice. Try to understand how that’s happening.

Who knows? You might become a better tracker in the Idaho woods, too.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University,

The caption for the bird picture has been revised to correct the species of the bird. Thanks to Raza Visram, safari and tour planning director for AfricanMecca Safaris, for the correction.