…5 lessons for leaders from the Red Bull X-Alps

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The Red Bull X-Alps claims to be the world’s toughest race. Like me, you may not be ready to compete in it. But you can learn a lot about leadership by watching the race and the extraordinary competitors in it,  lessons that ring true in any challenging, changeable, competitive environment, whether it is business or adventure racing.

The race is actually over. Click here for an update.

An extraordinary adventure race starts Sunday, July 7. The organizers of the Red Bull X-Alps claim it is the world’s toughest race, demanding an amazing balance of expertise and endurance. The concept is simple: be the first competitor to travel from Salzberg, Austria to the Principality of Monaco, a straight-line distance of 1031 kilometres through and over some of the roughest, most unforgiving terrain the Alps can offer.

The winner will likely finish in just 10 or 11 days.

Here’s the catch: these athletes must travel only by foot or paraglider. They receive no outside assistance other than logistics, food and, perhaps most important, mental upkeep supplied by two supporters on the ground.

For those unfamiliar, a paraglider is a “lightweight, free-flying, foot-launched gliding aircraft with no primary rigid structure.” Air flowing into vents on the leading edge of the wing maintains its profile. The pilot sits in a harness suspended below the wing, controlling it via brake lines and weight shifting. By skillful use of rising air created mechanically (think wind forced up by a ridge) or thermally (hot, rising columns of air often ending in a cloud), X-Alps racers can climb as high as 18,000 feet and cover 100+ kilometres in a single flight.

When not flying, some racers will walk more than 100 kilometres in a day (and night), carrying about 10 kilos of glider, harness and related equipment. They hike to make distance when flying is not possible, or to position themselves for launch when they believe conditions will allow them to get in the air. Their supporters must find and care for them wherever they are, a daunting task in itself given the distances traveled, terrain, and single-mindedness of the competitors.

So you might be wondering why I’m sharing this with an audience drawn together by a common interest in leadership and organization development. First, I know some, perhaps all, of the people on our mailing list are adventurers themselves. For them, the challenge of the X-Alps could be compelling in its own right.

Second, amongst the 31 teams competing in the X-Alps, one represents Canada (20 other countries are represented if Canada isn’t your choice). Max Fanderl and his primary supporter, wife Penny Powers, are entrepreneurs, public speakers and coaches from Invermere, BC.

Finally, Max is a friend, someone I have known most of the 20 years I’ve flown paragliders myself. While waiting on launch or sharing a beverage after flying, we have explored our shared passion for leadership, in particular the lessons leaders can take from the X-Alps Race. Here are a few of those lessons that ring true for me in any challenging, changeable, competitive environment, whether it is business or adventure racing.

Choosing a Path is More Critical than Having a Plan. Planning is critical to the success of most ventures. The X-Alps is no exception. Max has flown and hiked the whole X-Alps route, much of it multiple times, to develop a plan he believes will get him to the finish line first. But he also appreciates the old wisdom that “No plan survives contact with the enemy” (see here). No plan can fully anticipate the unique mix of weather conditions, physical challenges, equipment breakdowns and competitive opportunities that will come together in real time during the race. Max must be ready to adapt and change his strategy and plans at any time.

There comes a point in every business adventure when more planning does not add value. Another meeting, further analysis, or more risk mitigation won’t make a difference. You just have to move forward, take a step, experience what happens, learn from it, then make good choices about the next steps to take along your path to a goal. A plan cannot make you a winner. Being prepared to change your plans, even abandon them, just might.

People Trump Technology. Max has meticulously chosen the best equipment he can get his hands on, for himself and his supporters. Problem is that his competitors have done exactly the same thing. Whatever he finds that might give him a technical edge, they can access themselves. When it comes right down to it, the athlete and his (there are no women racers) team will win the race, not the tools they use.

There was a time when competitive advantage in business could be gained and sustained through proprietary technology. With the emergence of the internet and the free availability of information it provides, that potential for advantage is largely gone. You can invest in programs and processes all you want, but you will need good people to make them work. Smart, creative, adaptable performers are the only source of real competitive advantage left to most businesses.

Talent Matters, But Team Wins. Max is a physical specimen, with natural gifts further honed by hiking 900 meters in elevation at least 5 times a week, weight training, yoga and spin classes. He is also an exceptional pilot, having flown higher and farther than everyone else throughout his 25 year flying career.  But all that talent makes little difference in the X-Alps without a great team around him. Besides being his wife and mother to their two lovely children, Penny has been his personal trainer, always there to get him back on track when motivation wanes. She and Mik, the second supporter, must find Max during the race to deliver what he’ll need to keep going. They won’t get the glory or the big cheque if he wins, but Max is wise enough to know he could not have done it without them.

This same wisdom sometimes seems lost on businesses today as they get overly focused on top talent. High performers are an asset. But, no business can survive by investing an inordinate amount in attracting and retaining the highest performers, while largely ignoring the supporting cast that makes their success possible. You won’t find the these steady, hard working performers on your HiPo list – they’ll be doing their jobs. Challenge, educate, engage, empower and reward them too if you want to keep the business humming along.

It Isn’t Simply About the Money. The winner of the X-Alps will receive a cheque for 10,000 Euros. Substantial to some perhaps, but not much when you consider the time and energy Max and his team will invest on the race. Max has better ways to make money – trust me on that. This is the 4th time he has represented Canada in the X-Alps. Doubt his wisdom if you want, but you cannot question his passion. That passion is fed by a complex amalgam of motivations in which money plays a relatively small part.

An on-line forum for Human Resource professionals I frequent recently asked this:Canada’s oil and gas sector continues to struggle with retaining and recruiting skilled workers. With offers of more-than-generous compensation, the question remains: What’s causing this problem?” Maybe it is just me, but the inference seems to be that recruitment and retention should not be a problem when compensation is generous. This reflects a very narrow, even naïve, understanding of what really motivates workers. The people strategies of some organizations seem equally naïve and narrow. Like Max, the motivations of today’s workers are more varied and go much deeper than just what’s in the pay packet. Granted, we all work for a living, and some of us are driven by the dollar. If you want to get and keep good people though, leaders have to be ready to appeal to each performer’s unique mix of motivations.

Max and Penny also share their race experiences and lessons learned in speaking engagements. If you need someone to inspire your group or seed a conversation about leadership and business, you would have a tough time finding a more entertaining couple with a better message. You can find more about them and their speaking services by clicking here.


 

Update: Max finished 23rd, travelling 852 kms in total before time ran out, 431 of those kms by foot and the rest flying. His result was great considering he served a 48 hour penalty, stopped while the other competitors continued on, assessed for an airspace violation. You can see highlights of the race in the video below.

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Author: Randy Parkin

Randy, a Partner in Key Consulting Group, is passionate about developing leaders, their teams, and the organizations in which they work. He started out doing "real work" in factories, landscaping and a gold mine, before spending the last 30+ years as a trainer, coach and consultant.

Learn more about Randy here...
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