Growing up, my uncle Roger – my mum’s younger brother – was one of my Top 3 Heroes. The others were Douglas Bader, the legless RAF ace fighter pilot, and Barry Richards, the curly-haired opening batsman for our local Natal province and South African international teams.
So why the hero worship of my affable uncle?
Simple. He was great at all sports (which was like religion to us), a natural all-rounder, so we’d regularly go and watch Uncle Rog play cricket or rugby, where he was often the highest run scorer, smacking the ball out of the park, or he’d be master-minding the winning plays or kicking the winning penalty, as a stadium full of fans yelled his name.
When he was called up to trial for the world-beating Springboks team (who won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and 2019) that cemented his legend status for me.
The other thing he did was running a thing called the Comrades Marathon, a gruelling 90 km ultra-marathon race that is run uphill from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (the pretty jacaranda-clad city where I went to school) or vice versa downhill every alternate year.
In those days before serious sports science, many runners in their Dunlop Volley or Converse sneakers started the day with a breakfast of steak and eggs, to protein-load their systems for the workload ahead. (Gatorade and isotonic sports drinks were then a thing of the future, as was the fancy footwear technology craze that gave us mega-brands Reebok, Nike, Adidas, etc.)
Uncle Rog ran this rigorous race several years in a row and we’d line the road, waiting to yell our encouragement as he galloped past. Others struggled along, desperately pushing their personal envelopes to – and often beyond – the max, with blistered feet, bloodied shoes, and bodies writhing with cramps.
One year, Uncle Rog got married. It was on the very day of the Marathon. ‘I thought I’d do something different this year,’ he beamed in explanation, his beautiful bride Renee glowing by his side.
I dreamed of playing cricket and rugby for my country, but I’m not so sure I was so attracted to running something as torturous as a Comrades.
The big names of the day were Dave Bagshaw, who won 3 years on the trot, literally, and I watched him smash the record one year. Perhaps the only bigger name was 5-time winner, Arthur Newton.
Newton confounded people because he was using the same pair of shoes, sometimes clocking up 4000 miles in them when the ‘experts’ (often running shoe companies) were advising that a new pair was needed every 300-500 miles.
Newton in turn inspired some ‘wrong thinking’ in runner and physical therapist, Dave Smyntek, (PT, MA, NCS) who took it one step further.
“When my shoes wear down on one side, what if I just wear them on the wrong feet?”
Thus began what became known as ‘The Crazy Foot Experiment’: when his shoes got thin on the outside edge, Smyntek just swapped right and left, and kept running.
“Hey, if it’s supposed to be this way, let’s see if it really is.”
That was not only unheard of, but who would actually think of doing that??? It goes counter to everything we were ever raised to believe since kindergarten days. Left foot, left shoe. Right foot, right shoe. Right?
But Smyntek questioned and challenged and found a different, possibly better, way to do things. He and others who have tried this suffered no decrease in performance, and no increase in injuries. He then questioned why he needed running shoes at all.
A look through the history books shows that the Olympic marathon gold marathon was won twice by Ethiopian barefoot runner, Abebe Bikila, in record time, 17-year-old South African Zola Budd broke the 5000m world record running barefoot and went on to become two-time winner of the World Cross-country Championship, and ‘Europe’s Barefoot Champion Athlete’ Bruce Tulloh claimed Britain’s 3-mile race and Europe’s 5 km titles, barefooted.
Oh, so what happened to the dominant logic in our pop culture that all that technology and padding is good for us, and better for our performance?
That’s exactly the point. (And in the case of the footwear industry, no doubt everyone has the 'science' to prove their vested point of view.)
Dominant logics blind us to different perspectives and their resultant possibilities.
Possibilities don't mean it's the best answer. It implies that we've at least done a rigorous open-minded challenge to check whether what was thought to be the best solution is in fact still the best solution.
And the same applies to your work and your company in this uncertain age. You need to question and challenge and try many alternate ways to adapt to the shifting demands of the present whilst simultaneously anticipating a very different future.
And, yes, that’s as difficult as it sounds, as you well know.
So my new book, What Would Elon Do?, is designed to help you aggressively challenge the status quo, assumptions, and dominant logics in your company and your industry.
I briefly thought of calling it What Would Uncle Rog Do? but -- as he was a chartered accountant -- perhaps his solutions are not as creatively rail-jumping as the man who wants us to colonise Mars.
(This blog is an edited extract version of the foreword in Stu Lloyd's book What Would Elon Do, published by Wildfire Press, an imprint of Hotheads Innovation Ltd, and available now on Amazon.)