In the story of ‘Iron John’, as told by Robert Bly, we hear about a famed part of the forest where people don’t go.
Then one day a young hunter comes along and asks, “Is there anything challenging around here that people don’t do?”
“There is,” says the King, “but I don’t advise it!” The young hunter responds, “That’s the sort of thing I enjoy – I’ll do it!”
Ryan Sands is a bit like that young hunter.
Billions of people have heard of Table Mountain. Millions look at it every day. Thousands walk or run in its forests and lower tracks. But its peaks are seldom visited. So, Ryan Sands and Kane Reilly set out to do 13 of them – in 19 hours covering 100km and 6000 meters of vertical.
Then Ryan went on to formalise this as the 13 Peaks Challenge. It’s easy enough to find online but be careful what you look for. Its audacity might attract you. You might find yourself saying, “That’s the sort of thing I enjoy – I’ll do it!”
That’s what happened to Mark Gebhardt.
You see, Mark is a bit like the young hunter too.
From university he went into the safety of a corporate job. Soon he found himself asking, “Is there anything challenging around here that people don’t do?” He looked for gaps in the usual. Soon he started something that led to something which, 20 years ago, became Saratoga which develops innovative and sustainable business technology solutions. That’s 20 years of business leadership solving problems through huge growth, geographic spread and client demands.
Today the business challenges Mark is signed up for include leading a team of teams serving a mix of SA and UK clients across financial services, media and supply chain, including four of the largest insurers in the country.
So, when Mark learned about the 13 Peaks where people don’t often go, he said, “I’ll do it!” Since being a barefoot kid in Polly Shorts on Fishhoek beach, Mark has always run, and trail has faithfully given him the combination of things he needs - releasing stress, seeing awesome stuff in nature, and letting his soul breathe.
He is softly spoken and carefully considered, but I know him to woop wonderfully when running trails in Cape Town and Betty’s Bay.
But as Mark puts it, “the shine had come off.” Routine trail routes had set in. Not boring, but not thrilling anymore either.
The 13 Peaks Challenge got him to stop and ask, “Why? Why have I been running past these peaks? Why not run up here?
” Answering Ryan’s challenge and running the peaks renewed his passion. He says the same thing easily happens in business leadership. Ground down by day-to-day difficulties we can lose sight of the big picture. Fresh business challenges can help to renew the vision and find new goals to run up toward.
Mark tells me that one of the reasons he loves signing up for challenging things, like the 13 Peaks or leading a business, is that there are always unexpected side-challenges that take you on unanticipated adventures. Like the very high tree top you have to climb through to get to Klassenkop Peak.
He says, “You’re running a trail, not climbing trees. But if you want to get to the peak, you have to become a tree climber for a while. You have to learn to cope with heights and handholds which are not what you thought trail running was about. But to run this trail these are skills you have to develop fast.
” Business leadership is so similar. Of course, we all have to deliver what we do well – the bread and butter of our career or business. But if we really want to grow into new challenges there will always be skills we never thought could possibly be connected to our work, but then we discover that we can’t move forward without them.
As an executive and business team coach I often find that it’s these ‘side-challenges’ that derail leaders. For example, they may be technically fantastic, but to really move ahead they have to know how to have honest, vulnerable and awkward conversations with people. Now that’s a skill that is to technical competence as tree climbing is to trail running!
Mark confirms this is true in his own development. He studied engineering, which is about turning the chaotic into the predictable and manageable. Then he started a software business to make things repeatable and efficient. He never saw himself as a salesman, but his business success has depended on him learning how to tell a story, to connect people and sell himself.
Mark didn’t run the 13 Peaks alone – he shared the challenge with a small group of similar paced friends. He says running with others helps to maintain humour and gain perspective. Sometimes he’d feel lost in the labyrinth of alternative tracks and someone would say, ‘No, I’ve seen this path before.”
Again, he compares this to business leadership. He’s learned that he can achieve so much more when working with a team comprising different ideas, backgrounds and capabilities. But he does emphasise that it’s important to have a shared will to move a common pace. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower – whatever the business terrain requires. This reminds me of a safety tip on Ryan Sands’ 13 Peaks website. Trail running can be slow moving, so run with others. “Have fun out there but remember it is a big mountain and look after yourself.”
Running with Mark, coaching Mark, hearing Mark talk about the challenges of running the 13 Peaks and leading business, all cause me to reflect on the story of my own life, here, now. I hope this column does the same for you.
Because, sometimes we hear about parts of the forest where people don’t go, on the trail as well as in life and business.
When you do, I urge you to give air to that young hunter inside of you who says, “That’s the sort of thing I enjoy – I’ll do it!”