8 min read

  • The future is unknowable. Bold, visionary leadership embraces the shifting sands of emergent realities purposefully, courageously and empathetically.
  • Timing, in leadership as in the Namib, is everything. Great leaders keep their gaze not only on the horizon, but on the windows of opportunity and their teams’ dynamic, evolving conditions for success.
  • Visionary leaders embrace the paradox of leadership that rewards boldness, courage and confidence, yet demands abiding humility in how we lead, learn and live.
  • Less is more. While leaders often default to excess and complexity, our primary duty is to set the vision, chart the course and provide the guard rails that enable the journey.
  • Leadership is an expression of the values, the attitudes and the behaviours that are embedded within us. To be better leaders, we have to do the work of becoming better people.

ABOUT LIVE THE JOURNEY

The Namib100 is an exclusive, five-day slackpacking experience, hosted in the oldest desert in the world by South African adventure tourism organisation, Live the Journey.

It sets off 50km south of Walvis Bay, and traverses 100.4 exquisite, breath-taking kilometres – on foot – along the Atlantic Ocean and deeper into the desert.

An experience unlike any other, the Namib100 is an immersive, world-class journey of discovery and exploration. Although clients “rough it” by overnighting in tent camps, the guides’ support, service and five-star treatment – especially the fantastic food, (including French champagne and west coast oysters) often cooked on an open fire – is decadent and luxurious.

Live the Journey is neither a tour operator nor travel agent. They create once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experiences that serve to catapult, challenge and expand you. With their expert guidance, the journey really is the destination.

A relatively new experience, The Namib100 saw its first recce being done in September 2019 by about 15 avid hikers, including a few journalists, who were instantly mesmerised by the surprisingly diverse landscape and Live the Journey’s exceptional service. I completed this transformational journey in November 2021 – only the 114th hiker to reach the end point at the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen (1909).

Find out more about this unique experience at https://www.livethejourney.co.za/tour/the-namib100-hike

“On your journey to your dream, be ready to face oasis and deserts. In both cases, don’t stop.”
– Paulo Coelho

I’m walking in a vast, unspoilt wilderness of sand. To my left, the highest dunes I’ve ever encountered in my life, reaching skyward. On my right, the mighty Atlantic Ocean roars rhythmically with waves rolling in on the beach.

In and out. In and out…

The sun is belting down, but a cool sea breeze blows through my hair and brings much-needed relief. If not for my fellow hikers – a few tiny specks in front of me, and some behind – I could easily imagine myself being the last person on Earth.

I hear only the crashing waves and the sounds of my footsteps. And my breathing, of course. I am newly thankful for every grounding breath, something we so often forget to even notice in the concrete jungle of corporate life, which now feels many light-years away. All I need to do is take the next step.

Both words and photos fail to describe the unfathomable, ever-unfolding vistas as I traverse the world’s oldest desert on foot. You need to experience this yourself.

Although I’m increasingly aware of my own insignificance in this 55-million-year-old natural wonder, I relish this opportunity to learn and grow. As a human being, but also as a leader. For this wilderness has many lessons, if you are willing to suspend expectations and surrender to being the eternal student.

Only then can you truly live the journey.

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The future is unknown. And deeply unknowable. No matter the depth of our experience, or the rigour of our disciplines and our past practices, this is the defining feature of leadership in 2021, and beyond:

Our maps are obsolete. Our most prized skill sets have become outdated. Our most entrenched people practices have revealed themselves no longer fit for purpose in an agile, disrupted world. Like the vast, unpredictable horizons of the Namib, our emergent landscape is one of shifting sands and disappearing tracks.

In this brave, daunting, mapless world, leadership has never been more important. Or more
challenging.

How do you lead people into the vast unknown? How do you inspire confidence in an era of disruption, change and re-invention? How do you motivate people to follow a bold, audacious vision – to march into a proverbial desert – when the safety of the known has been ripped from underneath them?

DEEP TRUST. AND THE DAILY, LIVED EXPERIENCE OF UNCONDITIONAL AND ABIDING SAFETY.

The starting point of our Namib100 journey is 50 km south of Walvis Bay at Modderbankies (literally mud banks), which was the prehistoric mouth of the Kuiseb River. Our group of 23 hikers are the only people walking this vast desert in a southerly direction, heading deep into the wild, away from civilisation and most worldly comforts.

The journey of close to 125 000 steps, over five days, begins. The sea is my marker – my proverbial North Star – for as long as the sea is on my right, I’m walking in the right direction.

Each new step is a step into the unknown. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado captured it beautifully: “Walker, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” This rings especially true in the desert.

In this daunting, unforgiving landscape, physical safety is key. But equally important is the trust we have, as we follow the simple tracks of the advance vehicles, that we are on the right path. That we are led in the right direction. That we are in safe hands.

This trust is earned and re-earned, several times a day, at predictable 5km markers.

A highly visible red bakkie – one of the support vehicles – goes ahead and waits patiently, a few kilometres ahead, with essential supplies. No matter how blistering the terrain, or undulating the landscape, the red bakkie orientates, guides and motivates. Far enough ahead to mark the challenge; close enough to guarantee safety.

No matter how tired we get, or how punishing the terrain, the bright red bakkie 5km ahead holds the perpetual promise of rest, relief and accomplishment. So we walk on. We follow the tracks the bakkie has laid down for us. We follow, and we trust.

How do you lead people into the vast unknown? By providing the non-negotiable safety that inspires unwavering trust. Not occasionally or in times of success or accomplishment alone. But every day, even when the going gets tough. Especially when the going gets tough.

This is the principal role – the sacred responsibility – of empowering leadership. Great leaders set bold, audacious challenges. They set off daringly, they lead the way, and inspire others to follow with equal vigour and commitment.

But they never lose sight of the deep humanity of the people they are fortunate to lead. They understand the value of challenge and vision, but they never lose sight of the fragility and the vulnerability of what it means to be human. Of our deep, psychological need to see the red bakkie in the distance.

What might this look like in your own organisation? What are the psychological safety markers – your own unique red bakkies on the horizon – that signal safety, and ensure trust becomes a lived experience?

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In an unknowable world, successful leaders are deeply engaged and highly responsive, not only to the challenges that disruption heralds, but to the enormous but often fast-moving and evolving opportunities it creates.

Timing, in leadership as in the Namib, is everything.

After hiking 10km that includes a treacherous pan and a stretch on the beach next to huge colonies of Cape fur seals (and several opportunistic blacked-backed jackals), Day 2 of the Namib100 sees us reaching the Langewand.

The Langewand is a natural wonder, and one of only three on Earth: a 13km belt of gigantic dunes rising close to 90m in height, nestled right up against the rugged Atlantic Ocean. Similar to Angola’s Death Acre, there’s hardly any space between the dunes and the breaking waves. In fact, during high tide, the dunes drop directly into the ocean.

This means we only have a small window of opportunity during low tide to walk the Langewand. If we arrive too late, we will be trapped between the perpendicular dunes and the mighty Atlantic.

THE LANGEWAND IS A POWERFUL METAPHOR NOT ONLY FOR HOW WE NAVIGATE THE DESERT, BUT HOW WE NAVIGATE THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF LEADERSHIP.

Timing matters. So, too, does being fully present and immersed in the dynamic, shifting lived realities of those we are fortunate enough to lead. In the same way that survival in the desert is dependent on being able to read, and adapt to, the tides and the landscape, so, too, successful organisations are those who become students of their environment. And students of the changing needs of their people.

If our timing had been off, and we arrived at the Langewand after the tidal window of opportunity had closed, a daunting, exhausting climb over 90m dunes would have been our only option for continuing the journey. This would not only have severely impacted our progress, it would have added tremendous difficulty to the task at hand.

Our world of work will always present windows of opportunity. Some narrower than others, many bookended by daunting alternatives. Great leaders keep their gaze firmly fixed on the shifting tides and the rolling dunes, and the pace and precision required to avoid unnecessary climbs.

EMBRACE THE PARADOX OF LEADERSHIP
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The ability to walk the desert is not merely a physical feat. It is a mental triumph. A triumph over distraction. Over mental clutter. And over ego.

Walking the Namib100 is a deeply meditative and introspective journey of self-discovery. Cut off from the distractions and intrusions of the outside world, having forfeited all cell phone reception for the duration of the five-day hike, is extremely liberating.

By focusing exclusively on the here and now, I am able to fully embrace the magnificence of the present moment. With this comes a startling reality check: If walking is the great equaliser, the Namib is the ultimate purveyor of humility and perspective.

In this vast desert, you are confronted with the unmitigated reality that you are not special at all. You become fully alive to your own insignificance, your own fragility and your own vulnerability.

If you see yourself as an apex predator at the top of the food chain, the Namib100 will cut you down to size. In the desert, you are as vulnerable to the elements as everyone else. No one is afforded preferential status.

THE DESERT MEETS EVERYONE ON EQUAL GROUND.

Being stripped of the vagaries of status, privilege and prestige will humble you. But it will also remind you of the paramount paradox of leadership: we are all leaders. We are all followers. We are all lifelong learners. And yet, leadership demands confidence and self-belief.

Walking into a desert, knowing that a treacherous 100km journey on foot awaits, requires a tremendous amount of faith. In yourself, in your physical conditioning and your mental stamina.

Equally, leadership challenges us to take up the mantle of motivating and inspiring others with unwavering confidence and self-belief. This is not the antithesis of the deep humility required to lead. It is, in fact, an essential component of it.

In the same way that the desert requires you to trust yourself, while also embracing your own fragility, leadership demands of us stamina, fortitude and the strength of our convictions – without sacrificing the humility and the willingness to lean into lifelong learning and becoming.

Less is more
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Leadership often presents, perniciously, as a pyramid of more. We default to excess, and search for better by chasing expansion, amplification and exaggeration. Daunted by radical change, we dig in and layer down.

And yet, our recent history served a powerful reminder that many of our pyramids of more were fundamentally flawed and ill-suited to the task and responsibility of leading people.

Day 4 of the Namib100 proves to be exceptionally challenging. After 70km, we veer away from our North Star, the Atlantic Ocean, and head into the desert, over countless dunes.

After three days of following the tracks of those who walk ahead of me, I now find myself in the lead – leaving the tracks that others will follow.

In this vast expansiveness, I must rely only on tyre tracks of the support vehicle that went ahead. Our trek becomes a caravan of deep simplicity. Tracks underfoot. Red bakkie up ahead. Rest and respite at the 80km mark.

As people, as leaders, our instinct is often to engineer more. More complexity. More layers. More of the same.

BUT THE NAMIB DESERT QUIETLY WHISPERS: “LESS IS ALWAYS MORE.”

In 2020, a global pandemic stopped us in our tracks by exposing many of our complex, process-centric models of doing and being as woefully inadequate. And woefully out of touch with what our people want, and need.

And what they need is very rarely extra complexity, extra control or extra restriction. On the contrary. The past two years have taught us that people operate best when they set their own terms. When they work to their own goals. When they are able to honour their own purpose.

Turns out, people need very little from their organisations bar trust, resources and shared meaning. And to be valued in a deeply authentic and individual manner.

Our task as leaders is not to manage, control and command. Our responsibility is to set the vision, chart the course and provide the guard rails that enable the journey.

In the desert, the simplest of meals is a feast. A cool drink of water and a short, hot shower a glorious extravagance. Simplicity, as Leonardo da Vinci reminded us, is the ultimate sophistication.

This is no less true in our organisations. And yet, we default to over-engineering every practice, every process, every people experience. Often in direct contrast to what our people prefer, and what they know they need to perform and thrive.

Less is more. More often than not. And our people know best what layers of complexity and convolution strangle rather than inspire them.

All we have to do is listen.

DO THE WORK OF BECOMING A BETTER PERSON
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Leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is not a mantle that can be worn over one’s normal clothes. Leadership is an expression of the values, the attitudes and the behaviours that are embedded within us. To be better leaders, we have to do the work of becoming better people.

The Namib is the perfect canvas and a powerful motivator for a deep, reflective paradigm shift: ancient, yet evolving. Stoic, yet adaptive. Harsh and unforgiving, yet breathtakingly beautiful and brimming with 55 million years of accumulated wisdom.

As I approach the finish line on Day 5, my heart is full. In the distance I see the rusty skeleton of one of the most well-known shipwrecks in Namibia, the German cargo ship Eduard Bohlen, which was en route to Table Bay when it ran aground 1909 in thick fog.

Broken and defeated, she is a stark reminder of the hazards of the elements, and the perils of losing your way amid the fog of distraction and misdirection. As leaders, we must be able to stay true and focused, and fully aligned to a deeper meaning and purpose. The meaning and purpose that comes from doing the work of growing. Of committing to better.

A curious jackal trots past us. The wind has picked up and I can see the Live The Journey vehicles and guides waiting for us at the finish line.

THE JOURNEY IS ENDING, BUT THE WORK HAS
ONLY JUST BEGUN.

As leaders, our greatest treks are those that take us inward. Journeys of discovery that push us, constantly, to evolve, to adapt, to learn. To be better. To see emerging vistas and new windows of opportunity, and to vigorously and enthusiastically pursue them – all the while inspiring others to join us in that pursuit.

To be, always, worthy custodians of the people who have placed their trust in us.

Every journey begins with a single step.

In the case of the mighty Namib, it starts with a bold, courageous, purposeful leap into arguably the greatest challenge of your life. A challenge that will test you. And humble you. But one which, ultimately, will propel you towards a profound paradigm shift.

In the words of Dr Joe Dispenza:
“Keep your mind clear. Master the next moment and
ultimately you’ll master yourself.”

This is what the Namib100 taught me:

Walk with confidence. But never sacrifice your humility.
Trust is everything.
Less is more.
Better people make better leaders.

And live the journey. Joyfully.

Nov 23, 2021

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