Leadership Lessons from Adventure Racing World Champion, Nathan Fa'avae
Meet Nathan Fa’avae, a world-renowned athlete known for leading New Zealand’s most successful Adventure Racing Team.
Nathan Fa’avae is a world-renowned adventure racing athlete.
Born and raised in New Zealand, undoubtedly the world’s most adventurous country, Fa’avae has led many teams to victory in arduous, week-long races through incredibly challenging terrain.
Nathan has won ECO-Challenge, known as the ultimate expedition race, and has led Team Avaya, New Zealand’s most successful Adventure Racing Team, for five (5) out of six (6) World Championships.
We know what you’re probably thinking… What is Adventure Racing, exactly? In short, it’s a unique multi-disciplinary team sport that started in 1989, which includes a combination of running, biking, hiking, kayaking, rafting, climbing, etc. across varying outdoor terrain.
We think it is no small feat that Nathan Fa’avae led teams to the finish line in record times on the world stage year-over-year.
As captain of Team Avaya, Nathan has won back-to-back World Championships. Something must be special about that group and Fa’avae’s leadership in order to achieve that level of success.
Depriving himself of comfort.
Exploring the outdoors.
Trying new things.
Daring to be different.
Caring about others.
Focusing on solutions.
Considering how he “shows up” as a leader.
This is Nathan Fa’avae: a Servant Leader.
“When I look back on my adventure racing career, almost 20 years, I’ve learned so many life skills. I’ve learned a lot about leadership — what’s effective and what’s not,” says Fa’avae.
After a race, he considers questions like, “What could I have done better as a team captain? What could I have done better as a teammate?”
He constantly seeks to improve. “They often say the best way to gain experience is to learn from your mistakes, and certainly for the first part of my career, that was absolutely true. The most frustrating thing is making mistakes that you’ve already made before,” says Fa’avae.
He continues, “For me as team captain, composure is really important. Being calm and relaxed and not panicking about things. Whether it be navigation mistakes or it be equipment failures, whatever it may be, I think we’ve become very, very good at minimizing the impact of those things and not wasting energy.”
As a young teenager in 1989 when Adventure Racing first started, Fa’avae knew it was only a matter of time before he got involved in the sport.
His competitive sporting background was in mountain biking, kayaking, and exploring the mountains of New Zealand.
The first team he was on won the Southern Traverse, which qualified them for the World Championships. “Winning my first race just set the tone,” says Fa’avae.
For a time, winning was all that mattered to Fa’avae. But over the years, his perspective changed as he grew and matured. Nowadays, he realizes, “there’s much more important things in life than racing.”
Fa’avae not only continues to race and focus on training and preparation, he also helps operate a business called Absolute Wilderness that makes dehydrated meals for outdoor adventures, organizes adventure races for women and children, and spends quality time with his family, which usually involves some sort of adventure.
Nathan Fa’avae is unlike most leaders.
He takes pride in knowing he’s abnormal, saying, “I’ve always struggled with normality. If someone said to me, ‘You know, you’re a real normal guy’ — I’d probably be crushed!”
But what, specifically, makes him so unique? Why are people drawn to him as a leader? How does his leadership style give him so much success?
In following Fa’avae and his team throughout the 2018 World Championship Adventure Race in Reunion Island, and catching up with them afterward back at their homes in New Zealand, we’ve discovered four (4) key insights about his leadership that led to success:
Remaining Calm and Making Good Decisions When Things Get Tough
Nathan’s wife, Jodi, shared with us, “Everyone can make good decisions when the going’s good. It’s when the going’s really hard, that’s when you’ll see Nathan really rise.”
Nathan can think quickly on his feet while staying incredibly calm. He’s not easily rattled, which contributes to his ability to make great decisions, especially when things get tough.
Caring for Others and Having the Foresight to Think Others First
Sprinkled throughout our interviews from Fa’avae’s teammates, family, and fellow race compadres, we heard stories of how he thought intentionally about how to care for each of them, individually.
Examples, such as…
- Nathan going to the bakery before a race to get a specific treat for someone because he knew they’d need it at some point during the race to help get them through
- Nathan carrying the gear of someone who was struggling
- Nathan taking time to consider alternatives before making rash decisions
These are all trademarks of a leader who truly cares for his teammates and thinks others first.
Encouraging Individual Growth for the Sake of Collective Team Growth
Nathan Fa’avae supports others to be individually strong so the collective group is that much stronger.
This goes along with our previous point about caring for others, but adds another layer to leadership because tending to others focuses on the now, whereas growth focuses on the future.
Fa’avae and his teammates would all agree that winning isn’t everything, but in order to win, it requires a lot of preparation, intentionality, alignment toward a common goal, and communication.
These are all factors that individuals can work on, but that when it all comes together in the team, the group is collectively stronger.
Keeping Perspective in Check
In our Case Study on Nathan Fa’avae’s leadership, he ends by saying, “I think our lives are very comfortable in Western Society. We have access to an amazing range of food, entertainment, and technology. But I find I’m a much better person if I make the time to be deprived of those things. It can make me more grateful for what I have.”