Applied ultra-running. The runner.
An ultra-runner has a head start at running a successful business. Some of the hard lessons he learns about his body can, in a meaningful way, contribute to his business acumen — if, that is, he realises the analogies I’ll be exploring in this series of blog posts. Before I get into the meaty stuff let me set the scene with three stories: one of my body, one of my mind, and one of my spirit.
It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I am 4 hours into a 125 km Trans Gran Canaria — an ultra-marathon which spans the entire length of the Gran Canaria north to south. Something appears to be wrong with one of my knees but I’ve learned to ignore these things — mind tricks, I call them. I keep running. The night is bitterly cold. Day breaks at about 7 in the morning. The feeling of pain in my knee has intensified to a point where I start limping. I still have like 80 km to go (I know — super slow, right? I suggest you try it yourself). No way I can limp my way out of this — I am thinking to myself. I do what I normally do in such situations — I try to focus on my next step, and then the next. This technique is ingenious, it works. Sort of. Some more hours later I arrive at the 60 km checkpoint and give myself some time to think. I massage my knee and enjoy the good food and music at the feeding station. Sun finally makes an appearance, and this fills me up with optimism after having gone through a bitterly cold night. I decide to make it to the next checkpoint, 7km away, and call it a day there if my knee miraculously doesn’t get better. Unsurprisingly it only gets worse. I decide to retire and use a shuttle service to the finish line. My first DNF. Ever. What went wrong? One of my knee ligaments. A single component of my entire body failed to deliver what was asked of it and there was no other component that could either replace it or compensate for its suboptimal performance. This is what it took for the body to fail as a whole to deliver on the project. Neither my focused mind nor my eager spirit could help it. (For the empathetic readers, my knee recovered fully after a few restful weeks)
The weather in Wales was every bit as miserable as you’d expect it to be in September. The sort of damp that turns the ground into an oversaturated sponge, the sort of wind chill that makes your warmest layers inadequate. I’m set to navigate an 89 km course around the 10 highest peaks of the Brecon Beacons, but it won’t be a Sunday stroll in the fells — the time cut-offs rule that out. The course wasn’t way-marked so we had to rely on a map and compass to travel between checkpoints. I did not have prior experience in navigating but I was going to master this craft if I was to stay clear of the cut-offs throughout the course. I made my first navigation error very soon after we set off. The course led us up a misty peak. I was so euphoric after clearing my first checkpoint I descended down the wrong side of the mountain. It took me some 30 minutes to get back on track. More importantly it cost me 30 minutes of wasted energy — an expense I wasn’t sure I could afford given the race had only begun. Despite the error and the miserable Welsh weather my spirit was running high. I didn’t care. Later in the race I lost focus and went off course again. My body was screaming by that point and most definitely it did not appreciate the extra effort which could have been avoided with a little more focus and planning. Despite the few mistakes I crossed the finish line after 17 hours — what a day! I thought it was interesting that my spirit and my body could and did make up for the unfocused mind.
It’s sunny, cold and windy. I am sitting under a pile of volcanic rock sheltering from the wind, panting desperately for oxygen. The air is thinner than I am used to so I can’t quite get enough of it. I am surrounded by a moon-like landscape. I am totally exhausted. I am out of food and hungry. Some 500 m of vertical ascent over volcanic scree to the next feeding station. The situation seems hopeless, except I’ve been through this before. This is my low point and I just need to push through it. This wisdom boosts my morale, it keeps my spirit high. I contemplate there for a few moments trying to reason with my glucose-depleted mind. I do what I always do when going gets tough — I run a systems check on my body. I evaluate available resources, challenges ahead and time frames as objectively as I can, weighing various alternatives. I manage to convince myself that all is not lost, and I reach for the source of energy I didn’t know I had (what a cliché, right? Except in hindsight, after having gone through many such lows, it still amazes me how there seems to be no bottom to human’s energy reserves actually, perhaps only psychologically). I force myself up and reach the summit of Mount Teide within the next hour. I can barely walk by that point, so I take my time at the checkpoint. Within minutes I devour three plate-loads of pasta and wash them down with coke and coffee. My body immediately absorbs all the nutrients it needs. Sugar and caffeine rush through my veins. I feel stronger with every minute passing — literally (it’s actually quite spectacular). Within half an hour I have completely recovered. I feel like I am just starting the race again (not an exaggeration). I replenish my food and water supply and then run for another 45 km to reach the finish line in Puerto de la Cruz de Tenerife later that day. At the finish line I am sitting in the finisher zone, heavy medal hanging off my neck. I contemplate again. I go back with my memories to my low point in the race and awe at the human capacity to keep going despite the worn body and the logical mind both strongly suggesting to stop. I couldn’t have carried on had my spirit failed me too.
Now, how do these stories translate into the business language?
Michael E. Gerber in his book “The E-Myth Revisited” brakes down a business organisation into three distinctive types of roles: the entrepreneur — a visionary living in the future and constantly challenging status quo; the manager — a pragmatic planner who lives in the past and loves the status quo; the technician — the doer living in the presence. Now, how does a runner compare? He too can be decomposed into three parts: his spirit — an ambitious goal setter who can dream big and work back from there; his mind — a pragmatic coach who has to figure out how to deliver on the aspirations given the available resources and time constraints; his body — the work horse which does the heavy lifting. Now try reading descriptions from the runner’s parts against the respective company roles (I’ll leave it for you to figure out how they match up). Doesn’t really make much difference one way or another, does it? Exactly. The high level components of both the company and the runner perform analogous roles.
The runner’s body needs his mind to have its actions coordinated. It also needs his spirit to find purpose in what it is asked to do and to stay motivated. The runner’s mind needs his spirit to set the direction so it can plan accordingly. It also needs his body to execute those plans. The runner’s spirit needs both his body and his mind to achieve its lofty goals. This relationship is analogous to how a three-legged table finds its support. No leg is redundant, none can replace the other, take any of them away and the table collapses.
Now, how does this insight translate into a company? Surely no company can allow itself to value its lowest skilled workers as highly as their leadership? Quite right, if you compare them on the individual basis, however let’s remember one leg of that metaphorical table is a collective of technicians and the other is a collective of leaders (or a leader). It is in that collective sense that I perceive them as equally critical to the mission of that business, and I hope this is more agreeable. But someone could say: isn’t hierarchy a very effective way to organise a company? True again! But it’s important to draw a distinction between hierarchical structure and hierarchical culture. Every organisation needs hierarchy as a way of organising roles, responsibilities and reporting lines. It is entirely possible (and many progressive companies have proven this beyond doubt) to have the company culture detached from how it’s organised and practise a culture of fairness across all levels of that organisational hierarchy. In this case fairness is understood as proportionality:
Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality — people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.
— Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
In a runner’s body, much like in an organisation there are some non-critical parts which can break or malfunction without jeopardising the entire mission, eg. chafing, blisters, or black toenails. Conversely there are mission-critical parts, like knee ligaments or calve muscles, which perform a function so vital to the mission that it just won’t work without them (the lesson I learned on Gran Canaria). Going back to the table metaphor imagine its legs made of Jenga blocks. Many blocks can be pulled out and the structure will hold fine. As game goes on there are more and more “single point of failure” blocks which the stability of the entire structure depends on. It’s the runner’s mind’s job to tell one from the other in order to make the right decisions (when is good to push, when is better to take a break). In an organisational setting a very similar role is performed by a manager. Knowing strengths and weaknesses of their team members.
Conflicts between those roles will inevitably emerge over time. Another great example of the analogy is the not uncommon conflict between the management and the leadership. In much the same way like the mind sometimes attempts to take the lead, in a corporate setting the managers often confuse their role with the one of the leader or even more commonly, there’s a lack of clear leadership and all or some managers try to compensate for this, resulting in a very confusing message sent out to the company, potentially undermining its integrity. Another popular line of conflict is between managers and technicians who keep stepping on each other’s toes. On one hand the manager wants to micro-manage his team or even step in to “show them how it’s done” (The E-myth’s 101 — business management don’ts ), on the other it’s the technician who takes an uninvited initiative to manage. In all cases those infringements on another’s responsibilities inevitably lead to suboptimal outcomes.
A very competent runner would be the one with a perfect balance between his body, his mind, and his spirit. Likewise, in a soundly structured business there must be a healthy balance between the technical workforce, the management and the leadership, and this can’t be stressed enough.
Do you start seeing what I am getting at?
A human with its thousand parts, the mind, and the spirit is like a company with its thousand workers, the management and the leader.
As Gerber goes on to explain understanding those roles and, perhaps even more importantly, being able to draw boundaries between them is critical to running a successful business. He gives numerous examples on how the confusion over who’s doing what in a company can lead to problems or, in an extreme case the company going under. According to Gerber, over 4 out of 5 (American, I suppose) start-ups fail within the first 5 years of existence and only 1 in 25 make it past their 10th anniversary. It seems bankruptcy is not an extreme after all! It’s rather normal or let’s say, not out of ordinary. Of course companies fail for a variety of reasons, some beyond their control. So is there anything to be learnt from ultra-running that could prevent at least one of those 24 businesses from folding?
Stick around for more in this series.
PS. I’m on Gran Canaria again as I write these words. It’s been nearly five years since I attempted the mentioned Trans Gran Canaria and drafted this piece. I have added five more years of both running and professional experience under my belt and the ideas described herein resonate with me even more strongly so I guess it’s about time to publish it.