It should go without saying that governance in today’s complex business environment is no walk in the park. But are there lessons to be learned from a run in the Sahara? At the recent 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Steinman aimed to provide the answer to that question in a session titled “Going Beyond: Stories of Pushing Past Personal Limits.”
In the session, Steinman told the story of the creation of her latest film, “Desert Runners,” which follows people who take on the formidable challenge of competing in the 4 Deserts Race Series (4 Deserts). 4 Deserts includes a series of four ultra-marathons: races involving distances greater than the 26.2 miles that compose a typical marathon. The races take place in some of the most inhospitable environments on earth, including the Sahara, Gobi, and Atacama deserts, and Antarctica.
Steinman began the film project with a series of questions, including “what are these perceived limitations that we put on ourselves?” and “are these crazy people?” She arrived at the first race expecting to find a group of elite, superhuman athletes, and was surprised to find that, for the most part, the runners were what you might call “everyday” people; people with day jobs, mortgages, and families. Steinman’s film follows four people who decided to take on this challenge. In the course of the conference session, attendees were introduced—through video clips—to three of them: a student named Samantha, age 25; an American consultant named Ricky, age 33; and Dave, a 56-year-old marketing director and friend of Steinman’s who introduced her to the competition. Dave was one of 13 runners attempting to complete all four grueling races of 4 Deserts in one year, a feat known as the “Grand Slam.”
Steinman shared a series of her favorite clips from the documentary, and as might be imagined, Samantha, Ricky, and Dave confronted a wide variety of physical challenges, including dehydration, illness, exhaustion, and a great deal of pain.
So how did all of that tie into directorship? The challenges and struggles of the runners echoed many of the themes emphasized elsewhere at conference.
An injury suffered by Ricky provides an example. Given the long distances and extreme conditions involved in the races of 4 Deserts, some degree of pain is unavoidable. However, as Steinman pointed out, racers must constantly ask themselves, “is this real pain, pain I need to deal with, pain that can do real damage?” If the answer is “yes” to those questions, as it was in Ricky’s case, a runner needs to recognize this and give it the attention it requires. However, if the answer is “no,” any runner who intends to finish the race must recognize this, and avoid attaching more meaning to the pain than is merited.
As part of risk oversight, directors also receive an overwhelming amount of urgent information from a variety of sources, and must contextualize it on the basis of their own experience so they can ask the right questions of management. The board should ensure that the risk oversight processes in place have the capability to differentiate between a real threat and the intermittent challenges that occur in the normal course of business. When a real threat is detected, a director must not let pride get in the way of taking the appropriate actions, as the consequences could become progressively worse.
Another of Steinman’s film clips showed a series of gruesome injuries suffered by runners. Watching the clips quite naturally might cause one to wonder why anyone would willingly participate in such a competition. Steinman found that part of the answer to that stemmed from the camaraderie of being marooned in the desert with a common goal. While a small contingent of elite runners are in the race to win, the vast majority have the simple goal of finishing. Even a relatively competitive person would likely concede that running consecutive marathons across the Sahara or Antarctica is hardly your typical “participation medal,” and many runners rely on each other at times to accomplish this remarkable feat.
In a particularly poignant clip, a professional runner holds Samantha by the hand and they help each other to the next check point. Though they may be significantly different in kind, corporate directors certainly face their own challenges. The reasons directors take on the responsibilities and liabilities inherent in the role are many, but by concentrating on the reasons they are there, and augmenting their own expertise with the expertise of others around the table, each director, board, and company can reach their goals.