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Living large in 5,000-year-old shoes

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Petr Hlavacek first heard about the Ice Man’s shoes about six months after the Stone Age hunter’s body was discovered, partially defrosted in a glacier in the Alps.

That was the moment—15 years ago—when Hlavacek, a Czech professor of shoe technology, turned into a leader.

How? By seizing the moment.

Hlavacek wrote to the project’s principal archeologist, inviting him to a shoe conference and asking for permission to inspect the Ice Man’s 5,000-year-old shoes. The archeologist declined but noted in passing that the shoes had been moved to a museum in Germany.

Hlavacek says now that he took a free interpretation of the letter to mean that “the shoes are in Mainz for you.” “So, I told myself: ‘Only people with courage are successful!’”

In a week, he was on a train to Mainz, where he was able to examine the shoes for 20 minutes.

In those 20 minutes, Hlavacek was able to refute a lot of what previous researchers had reported. For one thing, the shoes were identical, not shaped differently for each foot.

Hlavacek faxed his findings to the chief archeologist. The next business day, he was invited to see the Ice Man’s feet.

“It was like winning the Nobel Prize,” Hlavacek says. “It was like flying with angels.”

Hlavacek went on to create replicas of the shoes, using measurements of the Ice Man’s feet, 3-D computer renderings, comparable human models, a master shoemaker and an ancient tanning method for the leather. Finally, he tested the shoes in the lab and on mountain hikes with experts, bringing out his results to be applied to modern hiking boots.

—Adapted from “Sole Survivor,” Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker.

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