Expedition Club Leadership Series: OCdt Kai Zhao

Preparing Young Leaders for Global Conflict

By OCdt (IV) Anthony Matlock, Director of Communications

The Expedition Club is a team of cadets who compliment RMCC’s officer-training system with leadership opportunities on a global scale. Facing the globalized future, these cadets recognize two certainties: one, in an era of  asymmetric conflict, practically understanding why the world works is invaluable; and two, given the complex nature a modern warfare, spearheading this education as officers-in-training is an incredibly strategic investment.

During the past two-years cadets have honed their leadership skills beyond the campus in real-world settings at the ends of the Earth. This following leadership series shines a light on the cadets who have led adventure, academic and cultural missions — in some cases at personal cost — that have added tremendous value to RMCC’s growing international reputation for innovation and long-term thinking.

For cadets: to prepare for the upcoming missions of the 2012/13 academic year follow our website, Twitter and Facebook.

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OCdt Kai Zhao, 2012 Amazon Deputy Expedition Leader

My name is Kai Zhao and I’m from Brampton, Ontario. For the last two weeks of my summer off from the classrooms, I had the opportunity to act as the 2IC for RMC’s personally-funded 2013 Amazon Expedition. This was an experience of a lifetime and nothing has measured up to this expedition in my memory. When I signed up for this trip, I was a first year Science student with my nose stuck in the study notes. I was reluctant to give up my precious study time for any extracurricular activity, and I only attended the information brief with encouragement from one my buddies.  However, when the brief was finished, I was enthralled by the challenge presented and I was set on going; nothing will hold me back.  With the memories of FYOP fresh in my mind, I must admit that I was a little intimidated by all the seniors who were also at the screening phase put together by LCol (ret) Steve Nash, the Expedition Club Supervisor, and PSP staff. I reminded myself that I’m an Officer Cadet striving for excellence and with that in mind; I focused only on the challenges laid out for us.  By the end of it all, I was very proud of my performance.

After I had received the confirmation as the 2IC, I immediately began coordinating with the Expedition Leader – OCdt (IV) Stacey Cusan to handle the paperwork required for this trip to take off.  However, it was the first time I had seen paperwork of this nature and the complexity of it simply blew me away.  OCdt Cusan was very helpful in getting me on my feet and pointing me in the direction because without her, I would have gotten nowhere.  We finished just in time for the end of the semester and soon after we all went our separate ways of summer training. For me, I attended BMOQ in St. Jean.  It was here that I got my first taste of leadership in the CF through our day-to-day training where everyone had chances to act in various roles of leadership within the platoon. I learned through hands-on experience that it is the role of the 2IC to act as a link between the troops and the IC, and that the 2IC needs to support the IC in all situations when in front of the troops.  Such basic concepts proved invaluable for me on our expedition.

During our trip, there were several times when I got to apply the principles of leadership I learned during my summer training.  For our first day of the trek, I took up my position at the rear of the file as we were following a single muddy trail through the jungle. It was difficult going due to the amount of undergrowth that must be cut down, the slippery uphill climbs or worse, the even more slippery downhill descents. Often, the team must wait patiently as some obstacles required members to carefully manoeuvre through one by one. In cases like these when the team gets separated or worse – lost, I became accountable for the rearmost part of the group by making sure no one was left behind.

Another instance where I got to apply the principles of leadership I had learned on BMOQ occurred as we were about to depart on a bus for a mountaintop outside the Baños.  We were to go up there to check out the volcano across the valley in which Baños sat. It is active and it has always been a threat to the city.  Just down the street from our hostel, a few of our members found ATVs and dirt bikes for rental at a very affordable price.  So they asked for my approval if they could follow the bus up the mountain roads on their rentals.  I thought it was a reasonable request, and I doubled checked with the owners to confirm that the rentals were in fit conditions to actually make it up the mountain.  After this, I talked to OCdt Cusan to seek her approval while presenting her with the necessary information to make an informed decision, which was easily reached. From this experience, I attained a personal understanding of the necessity of a 2IC to the IC; while the IC is busy planning or coordinating activities, it is the job of the 2IC to ensure that any concerns the troops had were addressed. This boosted the morale of the team as they were able to tackle the windy mountain roads on quads, I mean how cool is that?

There was one last challenge for both OCdt Cusan and I, that was to bring the team home without a glitch from Ecuador.  However, this just happened to be the part of the trip where anything could have gone wrong went wrong.  First off,  OCdt Cusan and I already predicted that airports will cause headaches for us because we wanted to keep the team together.  However, as soon as we got into the gate waiting area in Quito airport, OCdt Ryan was taken away to do a random luggage check, where they went through his checked luggage for contraband items. To our humour, we each thought of the explaining he had to do when they would find not one but two machetes stored away in his checked bag.  The hassle however was making sure that he actually got onto the plane with us because we didn’t know when he would get back, or whether he would get into trouble for the machetes.  So I stayed behind and waited until two minutes before departure and all the gate security and whatnot had been put away already.  Once we were airborne, there was an announcement that our flight will be stopping in Orlando to refuel due to the rough weather at take off.  This also would cause our flight to be delayed by roughly 90 minutes which meant that our team had only 30 minutes to make the connecting flight to Toronto once we landed.  To make matters worse, Atlanta airport is one of the major travelling hubs in the United States, which meant that we also had to go through customs one more time before we can catch our next plane.  We took off running as soon as the plane landed but we soon found ourselves in a massive lobby with hundreds of other people who were all waiting to be scanned into US customs.  I immediately found an usher who was sympathetic to our situation, and as soon as we mentioned that we’re all members of the CF, he led us to the express line for airline employees.  As soon as we scanned through, we took off again dashing towards the next line up at the TSA checkpoint.  Again we quickly found another employee who led us to another express line.

We would repeat this procedure one more time before we found ourselves at our gate area.  But to our dismay we were eight minutes late to the departure time despite our best efforts.  The only option we had at this point was to check in at the counter to explain our situation and get put on standby for the next immediate flights to Toronto.  There weren’t enough room for standby on a single plane, and the team ended up taking 4 different flights home. Some were lucky enough to get placed on First Class, but for others they faced another six hours of waiting for their flight. OCdt. Stacey then had to try to get in touch with our transport that was to pick us up from Toronto airport letting them know that we’re going to be delayed, and on separate flights. Meanwhile, I took a tally of who is taking the bus and who will be getting back to Kingston via a personal vehicle.  In the end, we were able to arrange ourselves in a way that everyone had a way to get back to the college despite the team being broken up over several flights.  I traveled with the last group, and we didn’t reach the college until 2230hrs.

Overall, our expedition went better than I expected; the challenges we faced were hard, but the feeling of accomplishment in the end made it all worth it. I trekked through the jungle with nothing but food and clothes in my rucksack and a machete, I climbed a volcano that had one of the highest summits on the equator line, and I experienced a whole new culture that broadened my horizon to realize the diversity of our world.  Meanwhile, I also was able to apply the principals of leadership I had learned firsthand outside of a training environment.  Despite the fact that we each had spent at least $3500 on this trip because RMC wasn’t able to support us after we had committed, if asked I still would gladly do it all over again without hesitation.