I was inspired to write about this topic after reading an article in Forbes Magazine titled Why Ironmen and Ironwomen Make Great CEOs. The article really got me thinking about my own athletic life, and how it has had a positive impact on my leadership skills at work. It is said that leadership is about “moving the hearts and minds of people” to be at their best to support their company or agency mission. But leadership is also about inspiring people to execute on performance to meet the bottom line. Endurance sports also involve the heart, mind, and executing on the plan. There are many characteristics found in great leaders. But what does being a runner or triathlete have to do with leadership? I would say a great deal.
Over time the endurance athlete begins to realize there are no limits to what our bodies can accomplish and what is possible in the sport. We see this in ourselves at the professional level. As more and more records are broken, no speed or distance seems impossible.
Great leaders always explore what might be possible, and understand that we often set artificial limits on ourselves. Leadership is about the future, and helping others see a light in themselves that they can’t yet see.
Discovery is different for everyone. And it is necessary for positive development as an athlete. This is something I have learned from my own coach. As a coach myself, I have grown to realize that all of my athletes discover and learn at their own pace, and bring their own lens to the sport. It is my job to figure out how my athletes best learn the various concepts of the sport so they might reach their peak performance.
Great leaders develop patience with those who allow them to lead. They understand that a learning organization leads to better outcomes and professional growth of the team. In business, the “discovery” process is critical as it creates the best environment for staff to “buy-in” to the organization’s overall mission.
Runners and triathletes are master planners. Especially those competing in ultras or long course triathlon. Endurance athletes have to do a great deal of planning throughout the week, as well as looking down the road at their training and racing year. And this is often done around a full career and family life. No easy task!
Great leaders are able to articulate a plan for the direction of the organization, and understand that “a poorly followed plan never survives its collision with reality”.
Performance Data Matters
Let’s face it, running and triathlon is a world of numbers – it is all around us. The savvy athlete knows how to sort through all of this data and decide what is needed to enhance his or her own training and race performance. The key is to only use data that adds value to reaching their athletic goals.
Great leaders know when and how to use performance data to execute on the organization’s overall objectives. Data should help us tell a story, and lead to good questions. As the saying goes, “what’s measured gets done”. But overuse, or using data in the wrong way, can lead to poor morale and only short-term goal achievement.
Managing Scarce Resources
Economy is king for the endurance athlete. When we look at Ultra Running, or Ironman, it’s all about the management of scarce resources. From the time you begin your first swim stroke of a 140.6, or take your first step in a 50K trail race, you have to think about conserving energy over a long period of time.
Great leaders see the big picture – especially during lean times. They understand that even in business, it is a marathon, not a sprint. The strongest leaders are skilled at meeting the organization’s mission by seeking out opportunities for efficiency.
If there is one thing the sport builds in the endurance athlete, it is resiliency. “The capacity to recovery quickly from difficulties” is our motto! Since endurance athletes have greater clarity around resiliency, this can translate well in the workplace.
Great leaders know it is easy to lead when things are going well in the organization. It’s in the difficult times when we see a separation of the strongest leaders from the rest of the pack. But just like in endurance sports, resiliency can only come through experience and having a few setbacks along your leadership path.
I have had the privilege of working with many incredible leaders during my career who were not endurance athletes. And as the article referenced in the first paragraph points out, there are many endurance athletes who fall short as leaders. But more often than not, the skills and attributes necessary to find success in running and triathlon (whatever that looks like for you) can also help you be the best leader you can be. And adding that “quirky” runner or triathlete to your leadership team can often bring strength to your organization!