Leadership Practice @ Gobi Desert

The AGLA trip to the Gobi Desert has inspired me to write my first contribution to our blog. Alibaba has the well-known goal to serve 2 billion customers and 10 million businesses. In previous blog posts my colleagues have rightly mentioned that in order to achieve our company objective Alibaba will need staff, in and outside China, who possess a global mindset and a mutual understanding. This post will focus on a personally impactful story from the Gobi Desert that I believe was an important step towards developing the right mindset to be a part of a company with such aggressive ambitions.


Our trip was composed of reflective sessions on leadership, self-discovery and the application of leadership principles in some challenging physical tasks. We traveled almost 80 km in one day by camel, mountain bike and foot. Though we were attacked by mosquitoes and caught in a sandstorm on the way, we finally made it to a campsite in the depths of the Gobi desert. After a rough night’s sleep we woke up feeling ready to get back to civilization but there was one final task to complete – a 5 km foot race. I typically despise running, however, running a race in the sandy inclines of the desert terrain in hiking boots and long pants was a recipe for extreme discomfort, not to mention the soreness from the physical exertion the day before. Though the run was not anywhere close to a challenge for the seasoned runner it was a particularly daunting prospect for me. Nevertheless I drew some insights from the experience that I feel compelled to share.


If a global mindset were so easy to develop, everyone would. However, the protectionist undertones around the world show us that, even for the most experienced leaders, it is not an easy concept to adopt. To possess a global mindset one has to be able to deal with an unusual level of discomfort and uncertainty. Though we were not pushed to any extreme limits in the desert, the personal discomfort of the run made me think about the difficult challenges that Alibaba is tackling as a company. We will inadvertently face steep challenges and uncomfortable situations in pursuit of our business goals but the only hope we have in achieving them is if we have the mental resilience to keep moving forward in spite of discomfort and uncertainty. The physical exertion was an opportunity for our mentality to catch up to the opportunity in front of us, and I believe we are all stronger for it.


Throughout the race one of my teammates, a passionate runner, encouraged and pushed us along the trail. I was able to encourage my teammates in previous challenges that I found relatively easier but I certainly needed it more for the run. Our team was able to naturally rotate this leading role based on peoples’ areas of personal strength. Encouragement feels like oxygen when you’re out of breath.  A key takeaway is a reminder to have the self-awareness to lean on others when in need and to not withhold the oxygen of encouragement from colleagues when you are in a relatively stronger position.


Mental resilience and teamwork are the resounding principles that I saw in practice. Moving to China and assimilating to life in Hangzhou was certainly an adjustment for all of us, but the physical challenge in the desert was another test in our ability to embrace discomfort and an opportunity for us to examine and develop our character. Ultimately I was reminded that the journey to possessing a global mindset and developing mutual understanding is outside of our mental and physical comfort zones. As we continue to work towards our company vision there will be inevitable moments of weariness and I will fondly look back to this journey as a reminder to maintain the correct mindset despite the circumstances.

Iyembi Nkanza is a Zambian citizen that has lived/worked across 4 continents. His previous work experience is in Consulting and Private Equity. He graduated from the Kellogg School of Management in 2016 and has ambitions to extend the benefits of the Alibaba ecosystem to small businesses all over Africa.



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