Last weekend, I completed the Oxfam Trailwalker (http://trailwalker.oxfam.org.au) in Melbourne with 3 mates – we walked 100kms from Wheeler’s Hill to Wesburn through the Dandenong Ranges in 27 hours 37 minutes and raised $1,500 for Oxfam thanks to the generosity of friends, family and colleagues. My boss told me I should write about the experience, so here goes – The purpose of this blog is not to brag about it, but to think about what I learnt/had confirmed to me about Leadership by doing it.
We watched several teams split up throughout the event – team members ploughing on by themselves, followed half an hour later by their team mates. Our team also briefly broke into two at times, as we had planned that during the uphill sections, everyone should walk at their own pace, then reconvene at the top. At each Checkpoint (every 10-15kms) teams had to check in and out as a 4, so there was really no point in allowing huge gaps to open up – you were as well off all walking together as not. In organisations, people need to have the chance to work at their own pace, but there will be some milestones that can’t be passed alone, so make sure you wait, and check up on someone else who might need a hand.
As completing the walk was my idea in the first place, it fell on me to do all the organising – registration, training, fundraising, preparation, transport and accommodation all fell on me to coordinate. I had the initial ‘inspiration’, and was able to build my team, but I still had to do the hard yards of paperwork and logistics so that we could achieve our goals – it wasn’t fun, but it was essential.
There’s no substitute for preparation
To be completely honest we didn’t train enough for the event. We did a team training walk most weekends, but then it was up to us as individuals to do the rest through the week. We didn’t. We didn’t visit the actual event trail enough, and we didn’t spend enough time walking in the gear we would be using for the real thing, and the result was pain (mental and physical). In leadership (and most things) we get better the more we are used to a situation – you learn what works and what doesn’t, you try things out and make mistakes and you can visualise the end goal. If you don’t know what the next obstacle looks like, how can you know how to overcome it?
Walking 100kms is hard; 10kms is a lot easier. Raising sales by 50% over the year is hard; selling 50 additional units in a month is easier. Winning the Grand Final is hard; investing in your playing and coaching groups and gaining one place per year is easier. Break your goals into smaller, time-limited chunks and reward yourself and your team every time you complete one.
People are different
Some people are ruthlessly goal-driven, others are only interested in other people, and of course there are many who sit somewhere in between. I got frustrated by one of my teammates as he constantly slowed down to chat to other teams as we passed them, whereas I was more interested in getting to the next checkpoint. It took me a while to realise that this was one of his personal motivations for doing the event in the first place – the chance to spend time with new people – rather than purely a way to slow us down. Once I did, I was a lot more accepting of it and dare I say it, actually started talking to other teams myself! Everyone in your teams will have a different reason for being there, and a different way of working. You can’t enforce your ideals on others, so embrace it and join their side of the fence for a while – it might be out of your comfort zone, but it will foster greater understanding, and if you ever want them to do something your way, they will probably give it a go.
If you can get your team on board with your goal they will move the earth to achieve it. One of our team members developed some pretty bad blisters on his feet early on and was suffering, but he walked through the pain. At 70kms all his blisters burst at once and he could barely walk, but he kept going. It may have slowed us down slightly but we still achieved our goal purely down to that guy’s determination – I have never seen anyone pull through like that for so long (ever walked for 11 hours with burst blisters?) and I am in awe of him.
The section of the trail between 43 and 93 kms was nearly all downhill or flat, so we and all our friends thought “Great, this is the chance to recuperate a bit between some pretty severe hills”. It turns out that was the worst 50kms of my life. Not only did it ruin us physically, as it uses completely different muscles (and guess what? we didn’t really train for the downhill), but the mental effect of a long, unchanging landscape for hours when you are starting to feel the pain anyway, brought us pretty close to the brink. Whatever your leadership situation do not ignore the “easy” bits, as they will be the ones that jump up and bite!
What challenges have you overcome and what did they teach you?