Anthony Willoughby ’70 still vividly remembers the day his headmaster at London’s prestigious Harrow School suggested he continue his education elsewhere. “He said, ‘Anthony, let’s get one thing clear,’” recalls Willoughby, the eccentric founder of The Nomadic School of Business, a leadership training program that draws on the wisdom of tribal cultures. “‘You are far, far too stupid to go to university. But how would you like to go on an English-Speaking Union exchange scholarship to America?’”
Raised in Africa by his adventurer father, Colonel Maurice Willoughby, a former Olympian and fourth-generation British army officer, and his mother, Nancy Dodd, a big-game hunter, Willoughby had gone from a happy childhood playing with pet scorpions to the formality of Harrow, a tradition-bound institution renowned since 1572 for shaping the scions of British aristocracy. It was not a good fit.
“My god,” Willoughby says today, “that was a lucky escape.”
Ending up at Williston, the 17-year-old experienced something new, “this glorious sense of freedom,” he says. “In my day at Harrow, the headmaster was still wearing a top hat on Sundays and his word was God. And suddenly you hit Williston. I remember in English class once, Bruninghaus asked a question. So I put my hand up and said, ‘Sir, what’s the answer?’ He said, ‘No, it’s up to you to think about it.’ I had never had that before. I’ve always been told the answer. So this really gave me hope.”
In the half-century since, Willoughby has continued to think deeply about life’s questions—What does success look like? What does freedom mean?—seeking answers from cultures in some of the planet’s most remote and inhospitable environments, from the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the steppes of Mongolia to the deserts of Africa. Through his conversations with Maasai elders, Mongolian herders, chiefs of the Chimbu tribe, and other indigenous peoples, he has assembled insights about how indigenous groups have adapted and thrived over the millennia, sharing that wisdom with an impressive roster of business leaders, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom joined him for team-building work at his teaching center at the Great Wall of China, which he opened in 1992. Other notable corporate clients have included Ferrari, Dyson, and Virgin.
More recently Willoughby has brought his training program (remotely, in these pandemic times), as well as the tribal leaders themselves, to companies, schools, and organizations around the world, helping people rethink their own personal and professional journeys. Central to the process of understanding your place in life, he says, is knowing your territory, so Willoughby has participants draw a map. “Nomads for thousands of years have known their territory,” he explains. “They’ve had absolute clarity. They’ve had trust in themselves and others, and they’ve had the agility to adapt to the environment. That is what we’ve completely lost. That’s why we are now taking the territory mapping and helping people work out where they’re going. What are the swamps they’ve got to get through? What are the mountains of indecision? What are the goals? Once you get people talking in that language, then they can start to work out where they’re actually going and what’s important in their lives.”
Willoughby notes that the presence of Nomadic School of Business speakers, such as his Maasai colleague Emmanuel Mankura, who addresses groups in full tribal elder attire, adds credibility to the message. “Obviously, I can tell people this, but it’s far more realistic when you’ve got a bloke holding a goat saying, ‘Yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years.’”
The metaphor of the territory map well suits Willoughby, given his own peripatetic nature. And, as it happens, his vagabonding got a boost at Williston, when during spring break he discovered hitchhiking. Traveling throughout the Southeast, he arrived in Florida to witness the launch of Apollo 13 (“bloody brilliant,” he recalls), bummed a ride on a private plane to the Bahamas, and, after graduation, hitchhiked across the American West, eventually seeing 45 states. He later hitched throughout South America, crossed Asia’s ancient Silk Road, and, while hitchhiking in Lhasa, Tibet, met his wife of 33 years, Victoria. He taught his two sons, Digby and Christian, to hitchhike on a trip to Istanbul. (He also has a daughter, Rebecca, and two grandchildren.)
More than merely a mode of transportation, Willoughby sees hitchhiking as a model of a healthy social transaction. “When you hitchhike, you have ‘Trust me’ across your chest. It’s basically, I trust you. You trust me. And that’s a message that I’ve taken for the rest of my life.”
A natural storyteller given to self-deprecating humor, exhibited in the TEDx talk he gave in Tokyo in 2013 entitled “In Search of Inspiration” (also the title of a book he authored), Willoughby revels in sharing his extensive catalogue of life adventures—climbing the world’s tallest mountains without oxygen, crossing Papua New Guinea with only 24 bottles of wine and no food, ringing Linda McCartney’s sister for tea at Smith College while at Williston. But he is also fond of recounting his humbling mistakes, or cock-ups, as the Brits call them: failing dramatically at bullfighting, temporarily paralyzing himself in Western Mongolia after falling from a window trying to impress a girl. Indeed, Willoughby formed a dinner group he calls the Cock-up Club, to celebrate the wisdom of life experience, and appointed himself chairman.
Perhaps Willoughby’s most consequential cock-up came when he was 22 and back in London. Finding few opportunities, he bought a one-way ticket to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railway, carrying the London yellow pages, thinking he would connect businesses in the two countries and make his fortune. Arriving after several weeks, he got to work. “I’d sort of ring up someone in pumping equipment in Japan and go, ‘Hello, pumping equipment? Willoughby here.’ Trust me. In those days, nobody spoke a word of English.” But he stayed on, teaching English, and eventually set up various businesses that allowed him to continue his travels in China and elsewhere in Asia.
“And that’s when I started to realize that, actually, I was learning from these journeys,” he says. “In Papua New Guinea, I learned a big man has many feathers. A bigger man can hand out his feathers. The spear—you have to earn it. You can’t buy it. You can’t give it away. I started to think of all those people I knew in Tokyo who thought they were self-actualizing because they had a BMW and director on their name card, but they hadn’t actually earned anybody’s respect. I started to see the link.”
To share what he was learning, he set up his first team-building business in Japan in 1989, calling it I Will Not Complain, a name inspired by a grumbling team member on that wine-soaked crossing of Papua New Guinea. A few years later, he expanded to Jin Shan Ling, China, at the foot of Great Wall, offering team-building and leadership to Asian business clients. He sold that business in 1999 to focus on territory mapping and the Nomadic School, but all his work has a common theme, he notes. “Everything from 1988 onwards,” he says, “has been to unlock people’s trust in themselves, and to give them the willpower, the energy, the courage, the gumption to move forward in their lives with hope and self-belief.”
Today based in Sussex, England, Willoughby is still exploring. “I was in Kenya five times last year,” he says. “I was in Mongolia riding with the nomads a year ago. I last fell off a camel galloping about three years ago. I’m still out there doing stuff.” (Or was, before the pandemic.)
Among his recent travels was a return to Williston a few years ago, reuniting with classmates in the place where he first began living what has since become his personal and professional motto: Be clear, be bold, be free. “Williston was very, very good to me,” he says. “I have nothing but affectionate memories for it. I would not be doing what I’m doing now had it not been for Williston.”
But as for attending university, even Williston could not change Willoughby’s fate. “I certainly got interviewed by all the wonderful American universities, Harvard, Yale, and everybody else,” he recalls. “They all said they’d love to have a young English gentleman like me. Until I got, I think, 300 on my SATs. And then they were not quite so impressed.”
Just as well. Willoughby would find his answers elsewhere.
To contact Anthony Willoughby or to learn more, go to nomadicschoolofbusiness.com.