Lessons from a Legend

Management & Growth, News,

It’s a word that’s overused these days, but recently we had the chance to meet a REAL Legend. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the Greatest Living Explorer, as designated by the Guinness Book of Records.

The list of his achievements is lengthy, but includes the following:

  • He was the first person to visit both the North and South Poles by surface means.
  • He completed the Transglobe Expedition, travelling around the world on its polar axis, using surface transport only.
  • He was the first to completely cross Antarctica on foot, unsupported.
  • He attempted to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole. The expedition failed and he sustained severe frostbite to the tips of all the fingers on his left hand, forcing him to abandon the attempt, and subsequently cut off the ends of those fingers using an electric fretsaw.
  • He completed seven marathons, on seven continents, in seven days, within three months of double bypass heart surgery.
  • At the age of 65, he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest.

Whilst we were with him, we heard about his early years, and his attempts to become an officer in the UK Army. Repeatedly thwarted as he didn’t have the A-levels that were required, he tried other options.

Stories of left over explosives stored in the boot of a car, using a Black and Decker to remove the ends of his fingers in the wood shed, and lighting a stove with one hand in a partially erect tent at minus 30 degrees were comedic but also enthralling. His presentation was laced with a very dry wit, which had us laughing at his exploits.

Less amusing were the photos of his feet and hands during various expeditions. Gruesome was the first word that sprung to mind! The stories of peeling his lips apart each morning, adding blood to the morning porridge only enhanced that impression.

Ran told of exploits that we can only just start to imagine: racing the Norwegians (obviously not his favourite people!) to achieve records; spending 26 years searching for a lost city in Arabia; eight months spent in a cardboard hut in the dark and raising over £19million for charity. The list was long, but the message is clear; the life story of this man is quite unlike anything any of us will ever experience.

There were many lessons that mere mortals can gain from Ran, to apply to life as business owners:

Self Development: Both Ran and his wife spent many years training to ensure they could survive in the most extreme environments. Ginny spent six years training to maintain their communications whilst she was often left to run the base camps on their various expeditions.

Planning: Preparations for the Transglobe Expedition took seven years of daily work and 1900 sponsorship agreements. When they returned, they arrived within two days of their original plan. Amazing enough now, but in the days before Google and satellites, much of their research was conducted in the Library and their original route was marked in crayon on a six inch globe that Ginny had from school.

Resilience: Eight months in a cardboard hut in the dark; hauling 500lb sledges 16 nautical miles every day with bad frostbite and whilst starving; putting up a tent and starting a stove with one hand badly frostbitten… All of these are examples where Ran put his body through far more than anyone could imagine, yet he just kept going. He knew what he wanted to achieve and, though the outcome of giving in would possibly have been death in many cases, he kept going until he got there. As business owners, being really, really clear about the motivation behind your actions is paramount to being able to achieve your goals.

Recruitment: Ran had to choose people to join him on expeditions that he needed to rely on absolutely. He was very clear that he did that only by looking into their motivation. Skills could be worked on and enhanced, and frequently were, but motivation was key. Once the expedition was underway, if there was any reason to doubt that motivation, the team member was swiftly removed. There was no leeway for a lack of performance, which sounds harsh from an HR perspective, but staff problems are often left for far too long.

Conflict management: Being aware of the need to spend months with just one other person, in extreme environments made Ran very aware of keeping a relationship as strong as possible. He told a story of flapjack portions that become almost a fixation on the Antarctic trek with Dr Mike Stroud. He avoided mentioning this for weeks, avoiding a confrontation.

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