By Alexander Crawford and Göran Gennvi

In Bin by Göran Gennvi

Discover how a unique outdoor leadership retreat in Lijiang, China, merges Taoist and indigenous principles with modern approaches to leadership challenges.

In Lijiang, a serene and picturesque setting in the mountains of China’s Yunnan province, a different leadership program took place on 15-17 March 2024. It was called the ”Tao follows Nature Leadership Program” and was crafted by Swedish leadership expert Göran Gennvi and supported by Alexander Crawford. Göran and Alexander were invited by Alice Wang, a Beijing-based leadership expert who was also a facilitator.

The program aimed to help a group of Chinese executives and entrepreneurs build their capacity by reflecting on and redefining their leadership through a profound connection with nature, drawing upon the ancient Taoist wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, the local Naxhi people and indigenous perspectives worldwide. Participants were invited to immerse themselves in the breathtaking landscapes of the Lijiang Valley and engage in a journey that blended the philosophical with the experiential, the hands-on with the reflective, the Western with the Eastern and the ancient with the modern.

All program sessions took place outdoors (Photo: Qianglong)

The entire program took place in the fresh mountain air and under the spring sunshine, in a dozen spectacular outdoor locations in the Lijiang Valley. It began with an invitation to openness and emptiness, a principle rooted in Taoist philosophy that says that true understanding and wisdom come from embracing the unknown. One participant said, “We approached the workshop with a mindset different from our usual, meticulously prepared manner”. They chose to empty their mind and allow the experience to unfold naturally. This approach to learning, characterized by an openness to the new and unfamiliar, set the tone for the days that followed and led to profound revelations.

Activities were carefully designed to foster a deep connection to the environment, to each other, and to oneself. A particularly memorable experience was a blindfolded walk near the Lugu reservoir. Led by companions, participants walked barefoot on the earth, a powerful exercise in trust and intuition. Initially fraught with the fear of the unknown, they soon found themselves moving confidently, a testament to the ease with which trust can be established when one is open and willing to let go of control. When the blindfolds were removed, a beautiful lake revealed itself. It gave the participants a taste of facing the unknown together in a feeling of radical trust, and a sense of being capable of coping with this reality of “not knowing” individually and as a group.

Walking blindfolded, led by Göran Gennvi (photo: Qianglong)

 Another transformative moment occurred on the evening of the second day, under the starlit sky of the gorgeous Blue Moon Valley, with the jagged Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towering above. As night fell and the hustle of tourists dissipated, the vastness of the universe unveiled itself. Sitting with a journaling exercise with the light of a head torch, participants saw the sky transition from day to night, watching as stars and the moon lit up the valley until they formed a glittering dome. This experience, lying on the earth in the dark and gazing up at the stars, nurtured a profound connection to the cosmos, a feeling of unity with the universe that underscored the workshop’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of all life.

The program is about connecting with nature and integrating Eastern and Western philosophies and leadership approaches to offer new insights into leadership. In a world where traditional management theories increasingly show their limitations, the program proposed a blend of approaches, suggesting that flexibility and a holistic perspective are key to navigating contemporary challenges. Participants explored the concept of eco-leadership, which emphasizes sustainability, resilience, and a deep respect and commitment to the well-being of all life forms. Through experiential learning, dialogue, and personal reflection, the program highlighted the importance of leading with empathy, integrity, inclusion and a profound respect for the natural world.

A reflective moment in the woods (photo: Qianglong)

Dialogues about seeds – both literal and metaphorical – punctuated the workshop, symbolizing the potential for growth and transformation. Each participant received a seed of a Crabapple tree, a gesture representing the beginning of a personal journey nurtured by the insights and experiences gained in Lijiang. This act of planting seeds is about environmental stewardship and sowing the seeds of change within oneself and within communities.

Reflecting on the program, participants shared how their experiences in Lijiang sparked a shift in their understanding of their own leadership and relationship with the natural world and with their communities. One participant eloquently summarised their journey with a quote from ”The Eclogues” by Virgil, likening the renewal and growth they felt to the rebirth of nature in spring: ”At this moment, the ground beneath us is covered with tender grass… marking the most beautiful time of the year.” This reflection captured the essence of the program’s transformative essence and power, illustrating how deep engagement with nature and wisdom can inspire a more harmonious, mindful and compassionate approach to leadership.

The ”Tao Follows Nature Leadership Program” offers a profound journey into the heart of living and leading in harmony with all life. Participants left Lijiang with a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper understanding of how to integrate the principles of the Tao into their personal and professional lives. Through experiences of trust, unity, and the blending of ancient philosophies with modern ecological consciousness, the program provides a blueprint for a leadership that is not only sustainable but also deeply connected to the rhythms and wisdom of nature. In today’s fast-paced times, often disconnected from the natural world, the lessons from Lijiang serve as a timely reminder of the importance of presence, reconnecting with the natural world, and leading with a heart that values the well-being of all life.

The program participants planted a tree at the end of the program (photo: Qianglong)