From the death zone to the boardroom

From the death zone to the boardroom

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

In 2018, ESSEC professor Stefan Gröschl and company leader and extreme athlete Benedict Böhm joined forces to write "From the Death Zone to the Boardroom".  Their textbook explores Ben’s experiences and reflections as an extreme sports athlete within the context of selective scholarly works and research from a wide range of disciplines beyond the general business and management literature.  Their different backgrounds strengthened the bisociative associations between extreme sports, and concepts and ideas framing and shaping human behaviours and organizational practices and processes. Different as the experiences of an extreme sports athlete and a business leader may seem, the business world can learn about human behaviour and organizational practices from lessons derived from the “death zone” of extreme sports. 

How to achieve the seemingly unthinkable and how to reach exceptional goals is not only a decisive process in extreme adventure performances, but one that is also critical for the career development of every business leader. Dr. Stefan Gröschl says, “Business leaders want to work toward difficult performance goals only when they have the relevant skills and abilities. When facing situations where there are limited known methods and procedures, decision makers want to focus on specific and difficult learning goals.”

While decision-makers and organizations operate today in an increasingly uncertain world, most companies and their leaders today continue to be hugely unprepared for the unpredictable.  By separating the causes and effects in both time and space and acknowledging the contradictory effects of solutions in the short- and long-term, we can construct a more complex worldview that challenges deterministic certainty of actions and their outcomes.  Dr. Gröschl says: “It’s important to understand the role of luck in successes and failures and the lightness decision makers need when facing today’s increasingly complex and uncertain world.”

Gröschl and Böhm go beyond the "usual suspects" in business and management textbooks by delving into topics like fear, pain, suffering, and failure.  They provide uncommon insights and alternative perspectives about managing oneself and leading others. Being able to distinguish between anxieties of the unknown und unexpected and fears of the known and expected helps decision makers to focus on what is controllable and manageable. Left unchecked, fear can lead to irrational decision-making and influence our judgment.  Fear is not just a physical warning signal: when managed correctly, it can serve as a self-analytical tool and a motivational method. This means that it is essential to understand the triggers of your fears to develop better self-awareness and understand how those feelings can influence behaviours from decision-making, how you assess your future, and how you interact with colleagues. Not only is it important to understand your own fear, it is also worthwhile for leaders to cultivate an environment where people can share their fears so that they can be better supported. It’s also key to not let a fear of failure overwhelm you. Failure is a topic against which companies are profoundly biased. Despite it being a taboo topic, it can provide an opportunity for personal and professional self-development and growth, and for individual and organizational learning and change instead of an occasion of blaming.  

Similar to fear and failure, organizational scholars have rarely addressed and explored the role of death awareness, death, mortality and suffering in organizational life. If they have tackled these topics, it’s only been to focus on their negative implications and consequences at the workplace. The authors show that dealing with death experiences can have a positive impact on employees’ self-awareness, willpower, decision making and generative behaviors. Channeling generative behaviors through organizational processes such as mentoring and sponsoring programs can be greatly beneficial to younger and less experienced employees and managers. Death reflections are effective means for reality checks as they help you realize what really matters in life - or as Steve Jobs explained, "remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I have ever encountered to help me to make the big choices in life". 

In terms of suffering, the right level of stress can activate a neurochemical cocktail which creates a sense of contentment and serenity or a worker’s high. Physical suffering can be used as a means to disconnect, to train willpower, develop mental stamina and fortitude, and strengthen resilience.  This greater self-control positively influences decision making processes at the workplace and in personal lives.  

Most managers have probably never looked to an extreme sports athlete on insights on improving their work life. At first glance, the two are worlds apart, and indeed the life of an extreme sports athlete and a business leader are vastly different. But the beauty of the human experience is that we have more in common than not, and that holds true here. The outside-the-box themes and takeaways in this book are thought-provoking and challenge traditional business mentalities, showing that there is much room for growth and that life is an adventure, be you in the death zone or the boardroom.

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