Summit Team Building

Ray Zahab | Extreme Leadership Series

Uncovering Resilience: Ray Zahab’s Journey from Smoker to Renowned Explorer

In this episode of the Extreme Leadership Podcast, host Scott Kress interviews Ray Zahab, an expeditioner, adventurer, and endurance athlete. Ray shares his journey from being a pack-a-day smoker to becoming an accomplished athlete and expeditioner. He discusses the importance of humility, open-mindedness, and communication in leadership. Ray also talks about his organization, Impossible2Possible, which takes young people on expeditions to remote parts of the world to learn and share their experiences. He emphasizes the need for resilience and finding motivation in challenging situations. Ray concludes by highlighting the significance of teamwork, trust, and nurturing the potential in others as key traits of a leader.

Highlights and Timestamps

00:04 | Introduction

In the opening of the Extreme Leadership Podcast, host Scott Kress warmly welcomes Ray Zahab, a renowned adventurer and endurance athlete known for his ability to thrive in both the extreme cold of polar regions and the intense heat of deserts. Scott expresses admiration for Ray’s unique capacity to handle such diverse climates and highlights Ray’s boundless energy, passion, and optimism, which he considers defining traits of Ray’s character. As they begin their conversation, Ray shares his excitement and briefly mentions a photograph of Scott’s recent South Pole expedition displayed in the background, which captures a special moment thanks to a fortuitous encounter with a professional photographer.

01:26 | You were not always an expeditioner, an endurance athlete, and you came into this in a unique way. Tell us how this all started, why did you start and where did it begin?

Ray shares how he transitioned into the world of expeditioning and endurance athletics later in life, having been a pack-a-day smoker until his early thirties. Feeling unfulfilled and without direction, he was inspired by his younger brother, an accomplished endurance athlete, to pursue a more purposeful life. Despite lacking a dramatic turning point, Zahab was drawn to his brother’s confidence and leadership qualities. He decided to emulate his brother’s lifestyle, leading him to discover his passion for adventure and ultimately changing the course of his life.

03:34 | What was your first big expedition or adventure that you can think back to?

Ray began his journey into endurance activities by transitioning from a lifestyle of smoking and heavy drinking to becoming an outdoors enthusiast around the year 2000. He then delved into competitive mountain biking and ultra-running. In 2006-2007, he embarked on his first major expedition, spending 111 days with two friends running 7,500 kilometers across the Sahara Desert coast to coast. This expedition marked a significant shift in his life, as he realized the transformative power of treating his body well and pushing his limits.

05:15 | What’s been your most memorable expeditions or adventures and why?

Ray recounts his numerous expeditions spanning over 40 journeys and close to 20,000 kilometers traveled on foot or skis in extreme conditions. He shares that his most memorable expedition is often the most recent one, which involved camping with his family in the Atacama Desert during extreme weather conditions. Zahab’s daughters, who share his love for adventure, are actively involved in various sports. He has founded Impossible to Possible (i2P), a nonprofit organization that takes young people on expeditions to remote parts of the world, providing them with experiential learning opportunities at no cost. Additionally, Zahab operates a guiding business, KapiK1, leading clients on expeditions primarily in warmer environments such as deserts.

08:58 | What are your future expedition plans?

Ray and Scott dig discuss three upcoming expedition projects, with one confirmed for the Mojave Desert in Death Valley in July. He attempted this project last year after undergoing chemotherapy and is determined to complete it this year. The expedition involves traversing the Mojave Desert solo, covering less than 200 kilometers during the hottest time of the year. Zahab acknowledges the challenges of navigating rough terrain and extreme temperatures, aiming to complete the journey faster than his previous attempt of four and a half days.

10:24 | In these extreme environments, teamwork and leadership are critical. So what do you think are some of the traits that a great leader has whether leading an expedition or leading a company?

Ray emphasizes humility as the most essential trait of a great leader, drawing from his experiences speaking to various successful individuals worldwide. He believes that humility involves listening to others, celebrating their successes, and communicating openly to gain trust. This trait is crucial whether leading expeditions in extreme environments or managing teams in business settings. Zahab stresses that humility enables leaders to connect with their team members and inspire them effectively, regardless of their expertise or experience level.

12:33 | Besides the opposite of humility, having an overbearing ego perhaps, are there other things you think a leader could do that would break down that trust?

Ray highlights closed mindedness and inflexibility as detrimental traits that erode trust in a leader. He emphasizes the importance of open communication and a willingness to entertain the concerns and ideas of others. A leader who is set in their ways or unwilling to adapt diminishes their ability to effectively communicate and build rapport with their team. Zahab stresses that despite having the right ideas, without an open-minded approach, leaders struggle to convey their messages effectively and gain the trust and support of their team members.

14:03 | Sometimes you have to build a team very, very quickly. These are people who you may not know very well previously, and you have to get to know them. Do you have any tricks or strategies or ways that you can recommend that really helps to build a team quickly?

Ray acknowledges that building strong relationships within a team takes time, as individuals need opportunities to understand each other’s nuances and build trust gradually. However, to expedite the process, he suggests creating activities that require collaboration and push team members slightly out of their comfort zones. In these situations, where everyone is equally uncomfortable, bonds can form more quickly as the team works together to find solutions and overcome challenges.

15:31 | In your expeditions, you have a diverse group of people and youth from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, different experiences. What are the keys to really creating, developing, managing, leading that high performance team for the duration of that expedition?

Ray emphasizes the importance of commitment in creating, developing, and leading high-performance teams, whether on expeditions with Impossible to Possible (i2P) or guiding KapiK1 clients . He stresses that commitment is the foundation, and team members must be prepared for the unpredictable nature of expeditions, where plans often deviate from the initial trajectory. Flexibility, adaptability, and awareness of the present moment are crucial for navigating challenges and reinventing roles as needed during the journey.

17:33 | Can you think of a time and share a story where teamwork made the difference between success and failure?

Ray recounts a youth expedition in the Canadian Arctic where teamwork proved pivotal between success and failure. Facing exhaustion and the desire to be rescued, one team member expressed their inability to continue. Instead of dismissing the request, the team gathered to discuss the situation, seeking a solution together. Through open communication and collaboration, they redistributed the burden by sharing the load of the struggling team member’s gear. Despite initial doubts, the team member persevered and successfully completed the day’s journey without the need for rescue. This story exemplifies the power of teamwork, empathy, and problem-solving in overcoming challenges and supporting each other toward success in extreme environments.

20:05 | When a dramatic change occurs, how do you as a leader process it first and then how do you share it with the team?

Ray reflects on the importance of humility and openness to learning from failures and challenging situations as a leader. He discusses the need to remain calm and adaptable when faced with dramatic changes during expeditions, emphasizing the importance of collaborative problem-solving and recognizing that there is always a solution, even if it means pushing the emergency button. Zahab shares an anecdote from a challenging expedition where he trusted the expertise of indigenous people and made the difficult decision to end the expedition based on their advice, highlighting the significance of listening to others and setting aside personal ego for the greater good of the team’s safety and success.

28:28 | How do you stay resilient? How do you help others be resilient in the face of very, very difficult challenges?

Ray emphasizes the importance of resilience, drawing from his personal experiences facing challenges both in expeditions and during his battle with cancer. He highlights the need for individuals to accept the difficulties they will encounter when taking on challenges and to find ways to persevere through them. Zahab discusses how leaders can support resilience in their team members by fostering open communication, understanding each individual’s strengths and needs, and empowering them to find solutions to their struggles. He also stresses the significance of building intimate relationships within smaller groups to enhance collaboration and effectiveness in achieving common goals.

36:20 | Tell us one more story about teamwork, where teamwork leadership made the difference in an expedition, really helped you to achieve something pretty cool.

During an expedition across the Namib Desert, Ray and his team faced a significant obstacle—a canyon that could have added 140 kilometers to their journey. Instead of taking the longer route, they collaborated as a team to find a solution. They worked together to scale down the side of the mountain, with each member contributing their expertise. The filmmaker used drones to scout the route, while logistics experts provided insights from the other side of the canyon. Through this teamwork and coordination, they successfully crossed the canyon and continued their journey, demonstrating the power of collaboration in achieving their goals.

38:40 | What would you say leaders need to keep in mind to build high performance teams, to achieve great things, to overcome challenges, how would you sum it all up? A couple of keywords for leaders.

Ray and Scott wrap up their conversation by highlighting the importance of humility, openness, and recognizing the potential and challenges individuals bring to a team. They emphasize the role of a servant leader in nurturing the strengths of team members and fostering collaboration. They conclude by expressing gratitude and looking forward to future conversations and expeditions.

Interested in Creating Your Own Extreme Leadership Team?

Scott offers a series of Keynote presentations and workshops on team building. Here’s a quick video of Scott in action! Contact us to explore this further.

About The Extreme Leadership Series

The Extreme Leadership Series is a dynamic exploration of leadership through the lens of extraordinary situations. Hosted by Scott Kress, it features a mix of engaging podcasts and insightful written interviews with leaders who have thrived in some of the world’s most demanding environments. From the icy wilderness of polar regions to the towering summits of the highest mountains, guests share their stories of resilience, teamwork, and courage.

This series goes beyond mere adventure tales; it delves into the core principles of effective leadership such as preparation, adaptability, and the ability to cultivate high-performance teams. It offers valuable lessons for leaders in any field, aiming to educate, inspire, and equip listeners and readers with the tools to lead under pressure.

Whether you’re an emerging leader seeking motivation, an experienced executive aiming to enhance your skills, or simply intrigued by the intersection of leadership and extreme challenges, the Extreme Leadership Series provides a unique perspective on navigating adversity and achieving success. Join Scott Kress on this journey to uncover what it takes to lead in the most unforgiving circumstances, where every decision can make a difference.

Summit Team Building

Most Recent Posts