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Updated 30 Sep 2020

Ordinary won’t change the world

Whether you’re swimming across an icy glacial lake or taking on your competitor in the boardroom, the secret to achieving your vision lies with how you face your dreams.

19 June 2013  Share  0 comments  Print

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When Lewis Pugh was a high-school student at Camps Bay High, he used to stand on the beach during PE sessions, look out over the ocean, and think to himself how one day he wanted to go to the Antarctic.

In his own words it was “only 5 000km” from where he stood. It was a challenge, but it didn’t seem impossible. Where 5 000km would be an insurmountable distance for some, Pugh could frame it as a stone’s throw away in his mind’s eye.

No dream too big (or small)

By the time he was 17 he had completed his first solo long-distance swim, swimming from Cape Town to Robben Island.

It would be quite a few years before he made it to the Antarctic, but that milestone too has been reached, along with many others.

In a bid to raise awareness for the plight of the world’s oceans, Pugh has completed a long distance swim in every ocean in the world, as well as across a glacial lake on Mount Everest. For Pugh, very few things in life are impossible to achieve.

“Sure, I can’t say that everything is possible,” says Pugh. “I’ll never run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. I’ll also never be the premier of China. But I also don’t have a dream to do either of those things.

I believe that if you have a dream, you also have the capability to achieve it. And then it’s down to the basics:

You need to have a clear vision; everyone on the team should know what that vision is, and share it; you need to have proper planning measures in place; have excellent preparation; courage; and finally the ability to adjust and change what you’re doing when you’re not hitting your target. That’s the secret to achieving your dreams.”

The power of teams

This roadmap is the product of living his own dreams, but also of years spent in the SAS (the UK’s premier military arm) as a reservist and working as a maritime lawyer.

“Joining the SAS was an amazing experience. Over and above the emotional and physical demands that were placed on us, it taught me the value of teams. An organisation like the SAS is successful because every single team member is valuable.

It’s not just about the teams on a mission – it’s about the support staff: The helicopter pilots, engineers, drivers, weather forecasters and so on. Everyone played their part, and everyone was appreciated.

“This was so different to my experience at the law firm. If I needed something done at 17.30, it was after hours, everyone was going home, and no-one could assist me. After joining the SAS I recognized there were a number of reasons for this.

There was a vast disparity in earnings, and someone earning so much less doesn’t really feel any reason to put in extra effort. There was also no articulation of the firm’s vision. There was no ‘why’ – why are we doing this? What is my mission? It was missing, and so there was no real team spirit.

“Learning how teams work, the value of support systems that share a vision and a goal, and most importantly that operate as a unified whole, without strict class structures, has been a vital factor in the success of these expeditions. Without my team they would be impossible. It’s as simple as that.”

Passing the buck

Hand in hand with a team that shares a vision is Pugh’s focus on a zero-blame culture. Again, this has its roots in the SAS, but has had a huge impact on the way Pugh conducts his expeditions.

“If you have the right systems in place to choose the perfect team members, you then need to all trust each other,” he says. “The SAS choose who they accept carefully.

For example, your values need to align; you need to be willing to push yourself to certain limits; and you need to accept that whether you’re from an aristocratic background or of more humble origins everyone in the SAS is equal.

“The result is that once the team is formed, there is absolute trust and a zero-blame culture.

This means that everyone feels comfortable doing the best they can do, and if something goes wrong the situation can be honestly evaluated and dealt with without people to trying to pass blame.

“In the law firm, if something went wrong, memos were immediately sent with everyone trying to pass the buck to someone else. No one ever wanted to accept responsibility, because you didn’t know what the ramifications would be.

This kind of behaviour scars teams, but it also means you can never truly fix problems, grow and get better at what you do, because you’re always missing pieces of the picture.”

Can business be likened to the SAS or icy swims across the arctic? Pugh believes it can, because at the end of the day, every vision, dream or goal comes down to the same thing:

How badly do you want it, and do you have the plan and processes in place to achieve it? And most importantly, since no man is an island, do you have the team to assist you?

Find out more about Lewis Pugh and his latest book 21 Yaks and a Speedo at

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