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Leadership Is A Marathon

By Gerald Walsh ©

This is Blue Nose Marathon weekend in Halifax, NS. If you’re reading this on Sunday morning, right now there are about 10,000 – 12,000 people out on the streets of Halifax running (or walking) either the 5K, 10K, 15K, half-marathon (21K), or full marathon (42K).

I was one of the co-founders of Blue Nose – some 15 years ago – and am still active on the Board of Directors. Here I am at the finish line of the full marathon in one of the early years.

As I was thinking about Blue Nose, it brought to mind an article I wrote several years ago that spoke about the similarities between leadership and marathon running. I looked it up, dusted it off, and decided to present it in this week’s blog. Here it is:

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Don’t get me wrong. Crossing the finish line of a marathon is a great feeling. But for many people, including me, the journey of getting to the start line is more important than crossing the finish line.

That’s because a marathon is not just about running 42K on race day. It’s about putting in roughly 1,000 kilometres over a four to six month training period leading up to race day.

It’s about building a plan, then carrying it out with precision. It’s about maintaining focus, commitment and determination when the training is toughest. It’s about persevering and not giving up when the pain is worst. It’s about overcoming obstacles when you really want to quit. 

Here’s why I think training for a marathon teaches leadership qualities:

Running teaches you about inter-dependencies. 

Many people think running is an individual sport. Really, it’s a team sport. Although you run your race alone, many join you on that journey. Coaches, trainers, family, friends, other runners, spectators and volunteers are all part of your team. Some are with you the entire way. Others touch you briefly but inspire you greatly.

In business, true leaders never take full credit for their success. They know that where they are in their careers is the result of fellow workers, teachers, mentors, and others. No one really makes it on their own. They depend on others.

Running teaches you to deal with adversity.

The journey to complete a marathon is rarely smooth. You will encounter injury, burnout, fatigue, and frustration. You will encounter naysayers who will say you can’t do it. You might also ‘hit the wall’ – the point at which all your physical and emotional energy is depleted.

In our careers, we deal with adversity all the time. Economic downturns, takeovers and new competition can cause job loss, financial stress, and change. How you respond to these challenges is a measure of your determination and commitment to keep going. You learn valuable lessons from adversity.   

Running teaches you soft skills.

Running a marathon requires physical fitness and mental toughness. Of the two, mental toughness is more crucial to your success. 

When a runner steps up to the starting line, they deserve to be there (assuming they have done the training.) But physical preparation alone does not guarantee success. Focus, self-discipline, perseverance, and desire – all examples of mental toughness – actually determine the outcome.

Similarly, the workplace is full of people with extraordinary technical skills or advanced degrees but who fall short of reaching their potential professionally.

Why?

Because they have not developed soft skills (or personal qualities) that ultimately determine success in life. Leaders understand that hard skills alone do not guarantee success.

Running teaches you how to manage change.

Training for a marathon will require that you abandon old habits and adopt new behaviours. Take eating, for example. As you start thinking about carbs, protein and hydration, you begin to think of food as fuel for your body rather than enjoyment.

And consider time management. Training for a marathon means sticking to a rigid schedule. Often the only available time to train is early morning. Changing your routine to get out of bed at 5:30 on a cold, dark morning requires commitment.

Leaders exercise great discipline in order to implement change successfully. They know there is temptation is to fall back into familiar ways of doing things, because it is easier. But they know that ‘easier’ equates with less effective, meaning that the desired outcome is less likely to be achieved.

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A friend of mine once said a marathon was the closest thing most of us will have to the Olympic experience. When he said this, the picture that came to mind was a gold medallist standing on the highest podium.

Then I read the Olympic Creed.

Written in 1908, the creed states, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”   

True leaders understand that success is not about finishing on top or making the most money. It’s more important to learn from the journey and reach your potential.

See you at next year’s Blue Nose!

 To share your thoughts on this blog post, please write me at walsh@geraldwalsh.com


Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh