6 Leadership Insights from Marathons

Life goals. They are what drive us. They are the measure by which we evaluate our success and the lens through which we determine our satisfaction. Like many, I have both professional life goals and personal ones. The goal we will discuss here involved completing what is seen as one of the greatest feats of human endurance—a 26.2 mile race with modern-era origins tracing to Greece in 1896. My desire to fill this square on the personal life goal list is about personal challenge, testing limits and proving the ability to go the distance. Through this experience, I learned more about myself than I ever imagined. Further, it presented clear implications to leadership lessons on which I think of often on the journey to become a better leader… as I run the leadership marathon.

Not a Runner

I am not a runner. Yes, I ran 3 days a week as part of my physical fitness, but this did not make me a runner. Runners were naturals and strode through the miles with the greatest of ease and speed. I soon discovered this was the first of many links to leadership in this quest. Across the written world, how many people think the same thing of successful leaders…that it must be natural and easy for them? With my preconceived notions of running, I knew completing 26.2 miles would put my body through stresses it had never endured while consuming an entire day’s calories over the span of a mere few hours on the course. My simple belief was that this race was not about skill, but determination to complete the measure. As with many things in life, my predispositions could not have been further from the truth.

Gameplan

My only planned preparation was to download a training plan and run, a lot. What I found was a world of information I never imagined. Completing a marathon was not about just running, it was about developing style, refining skills and honing execution. I discovered accomplishing this goal was not about natural ability. On the contrary, all the factors influencing performance remained largely in my control. Sound familiar? This journey mirrored my initial study of leadership and so did my findings.

Like leadership, running a marathon was about demeanor, goal-setting, cadence, pace, touchpoints and determination. For both endeavors, “the physiological and psychological demands are extreme; therefore, you must plan your preparation intelligently and thoroughly.”

Completing a marathon was not about just running, it was about developing style, refining skills and honing execution.

1. Demeanor

The initially perceived natural running ability mentioned above, the appearance of ease and speed, is a derivative of developing a proper running form. From letting your gaze guide your run, to achieving optimum performance by ensuring that “your shoulders should be low and loose, not high and tight,” your running form encompasses every aspect of your person to ensure “good running is springy and quiet.” Your demeanor carries the same importance in leadership. Nick Morgan told us in Forbes recently, “you probably have some parental or authority figure in your past who told you to worry about your posture, but how you carry yourself is more important and more subtle than just standing up straight.” Our demeanor, to include both conscious and subtly unconscious mannerisms and appearance, is the physical embodiment of our true attitudes, opinions and predispositions. In a similar manner, The Economist’s Schumpeter blog recently detailed that “getting to the top is as much to do with how you look as what you achieve.” Do you have a strong leadership presence? This simple quality motivates people to both follow you and to respect you. Realize every person in a room has a presence…however small or large, positive or negative. What does your demeanor tell those around you? Are you confident and competent or struggling to make the next mile?

2. Goal-setting

As a leader, we must establish optimal goals for both our organizations and our followers. To be efficiently effective in this endeavor, we must establish internal desire as well as temper the goals with the inherent skills of our team. For a marathoner, the goal is either distance (completion) or speed. For me, completion was obviously the mark by which I would measure success. With this goal in mind, I chose a training plan which would guide my journey: 16 weeks and 560 miles from the starting line the goals were set and it was up to me to meet them. As leaders, we must do the same for our team. Determine interim goals which, over the organizational equivalent of 4 months and 500+miles, will guide the team to the goal and best prepare them for success. Many leaders evade establishing “high performance-improvement expectations in ways that elicit results” because stretch goals bear a chance of failure. As noted by Leadership Expert Dr Seuss, “you can’t fall if you don’t climb…but there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground!”

Our demeanor, to include both conscious and subtly unconscious mannerisms and appearance, is the physical embodiment of our true attitudes, opinions and predispositions.

3. Cadence

The next aspect of the quest was to determine how to turn consistently-timed miles. My simple running theory was, to increase speed run faster. How many leaders have you seen push their organization in the same way? The running world is in a continual debate over the optimum number of steps per mile, but the common goal is 180 strides per minute. This cadence provides the optimum mix of stride length, time in the air and ground impact to efficiently use your energy. Young runners, and young leaders alike, tend to over-stride. This means they land each step with their heel out in front of them and each time the heel impacts the ground, it is like hitting the breaks and actually slows forward momentum. This negative impact is exacerbated with slower steps because each foot spends more time in the air impacts the ground with a greater landing shock. Establishing an optimal stride cadence allows you to “feel like you are running over the ground not into it.” It was counterintuitive that shorter strides and a more deliberate cadence lowers the chance of injury, and ultimately failure, because it minimizes the shock of landing. What is the cadence your leadership style sets for your team? Do you spend too much time in the air with a landing shock that ‘hits the breaks’ or do you establish smooth, deliberate steps toward success?

4. Pace

To further dispel the belief that to increase speed run faster, pace is a vital component to any race. Whereas cadence is steps per minute, pace is simple minutes per mile. But pace is not about turning 8 minute miles, it is about strategy. Studies have shown that the optimal goal for a 5k is to run the first mile 3% faster than the goal pace, but completing this first measure at 6% faster will be detrimental to overall race completion. For a longer race, such as the marathon, it is vital to turn the first 4 miles 3% slower that your goal pace. In this situation, a Fighter Pilot analogy clearly applied here, “slow down, you will get there faster.” Whether on a marathon course or in the boardroom, we are all motivated as the starting gun fires. As leaders we must understand that “by starting faster than goal pace and putting “time in the bank” you’re actually burning through your available resources too fast and will almost certainly run out of fuel.

5. Touchpoints

Touchpoints matter. As a leader, how do you interface with your organization? In running a marathon, how does your foot touch the ground? I discovered a heel strike uses less energy than mid-foot strikes when striding. In addition to using less energy, there is also a lower chance of injury. The same can be said with leadership. Do you establish a smooth interface with your team or is it jarring every time you enter a room? Make your touchpoints deliberate and progress will be made with less energy or chance of organizational injury.

Cadence is steps per minute, pace is simple minutes per mile. But pace is not about turning 8 minute miles, it is about strategy.

6. Determination

When training for a marathon, the adrenalin surges through your veins every time you think of the dreaded “wall” that marathoners hit sometime after the 20-mile mark. The ominous wall is the point in the marathon when a runner’s glycogen (stored energy) within the muscles is depleted, forcing them to slow down their pace considerably, sometimes to a walk. Well, I hit the wall hard. Thoughts of quitting, questions of motivation and surges of pain pulsed from head to toe. How many times have you felt this way as a leader? A seemingly insurmountable problem, a trying follower, a low point in your business? The only way to make it through is to remember your initial motivation and dedication, grit your teeth and push through the pain. Determination is the ultimate driving factor in completing the leadership marathon.

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Sprinting to the Finish Line

As a leader, every decision and indecision…action, inaction and reaction…must be deliberate. The same holds true for a marathon runner. Allowing a poor demeanor to develop can guarantee failure before the starting gun fires. Improper goals, inconsistent cadence and pace can cause burn out before gaining sight of the finish line. Focusing on the wrong touchpoints can cause damage and waste energy which will erode determination and dedication. The successful leader knows how to run the leadership marathon. They understand the factors which are required to position their teams with just enough reserves to sprint that last half mile and cross the finish line with their head held high! The last thing I learned in this journey, and a point which I remember every time I look at the Intercontinental Istanbul Marathon Medal hanging on my wall…I hate marathons! It also reminds me that some of my biggest lessons, some of my greatest experience, are the result of painful events in life.

 

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Chris R. Stricklin is a combat-proven leader, mentor and coach integrating the fields of dynamic followership, negotiations, leadership, positive change, public relations, public speaking and complex organizational change. His unique experience as a U.S.A.F. Thunderbird coupled with Pentagon-level management of critical Air Force resources valued at $840B, multiple N.A.T.O. assignments, White House and DARPA fellowships, and command-experience in the United States Air Force allow his unique synthesis of speaking, following, leading, management, negotiations, continuous improvement and positive change. Chris is also a Certified Manager with degrees in Economics, Financial Planning, Strategic Studies and Operational Art and Science. He authored a negotiation primer which was subsequently published and adopted as required Air Force Pentagon new action officer orientation. He and his wife, Terri, have 4 children.

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