Last updated: Grit before glory: Leadership lessons learned from running marathons

Grit before glory: Leadership lessons learned from running marathons


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In addition to my passion for building innovative cloud products and services, I have an interest in running – especially running marathons. I run for enjoyment and have no plans of quitting my day job, however during my runs I did discover a few key lessons and takeaways that not only apply to training and running marathons but also in managing teams and businesses.

Lesson 1: It all begins with a first step – the important thing is that you begin.

I signed for my first half marathon out of the blue because I wanted to support the charity efforts of an MBA classmate. While others who’ve been more athletically inclined might be more methodical and train their way up – starting with a 5K, then progressing – I never again pondered about how I got the idea to run the half marathon, rather I focused on running.

Similarly, in a professional context, it’s often more important to execute on an idea or a project rather than spending energy debating who came up with the idea, in what order the team member names appear on a document, or the framing project manifesto.

Successful teams focus on getting things done once a goal has been agreed upon, not spending time on aesthetics that can often distract and add little value. As leaders and managers, it’s important we realize that a good idea is a good idea and execute, no matter where the idea comes from, be it the CEO of a company, or an entry-level employee.

Lesson 2: Small steps get the big job done.

It’s a daunting task to run 42 km (42.165 km to be precise), no matter how many times you’ve run such a distance before. Even today, I never approach my marathons like I’m running 42 km, instead I start by telling myself that I’m first running a 5K, then a 10K, then a 20K, and before you know it, the finish line of marathon emerges.

When the end goal is ambitious and hard to reach, successful leaders break the journey in small blocks and think about these increments of achievements. This doesn’t mean that they take their eye off the prize or get lost in detailed project plans, rather that leaders recognize milestones leading up to the destination.

Running marathons requires us to have a regular run schedule with varying distances and have periods of rest. Same applies to leading teams in a professional setting; it needs a regular schedule of engagements, work sessions and measuring progressing along the way. Big bang happened billions of years ago, that is the only significant event which we know where everything got done in milli-seconds; for everything else taking small steps every day is the only thing that works.

Lesson 3: Don’t forget to cheer others along the way.

I’m extremely competitive and have a strong desire to win, however I found that cheering and clapping for others while running the marathon gave me a much needed surge of energy in those long, tiring moments – encouraging others to run and finish gave me strength to carry me forward.

This was an eye-opener, especially in the professional context where we often see teams in the same organization, group, or location pull each other down by trying to “one-up” others. In reality, we could all be successful if cheering for one another. Making other teams or groups successful, or acknowledging their success, doesn’t diminish the achievements of one’s own team or organization.

Successful companies realize this and play together rather than getting lost in internal petty politics. Stand up and cheer for others as they work towards a daunting goal or deadline, support them in their efforts and you’ll see an increased productivity in your own teams.

Lesson 4: Envision getting to the finish line.

Every marathoner will tell you that there comes a time in each race when they hit a block, making it seem impossible to run one more step. At such points, it’s purely mind over matter – developing the mental strength to plough through wins the race. For me, it often helps to visualize reaching the finish line and putting that finisher’s medal on the wall, or even the call to a loved one.

Experience has taught us that when project teams hit a dead end where it seems nothing can be done, good leaders step up and paint the picture of victory, re-energizing the team and getting them back on track.

It’s important to realize that there are different shades of what victory feels like – it can be as simple as a dinner with the team at the best restaurant in town to the great societal impact that a project can deliver. Successful leaders paint with all the shades of victory, balancing between the more immediate material pleasures like a dinner out in town to more noble societal impacts.

Lesson 5: There is no finish line. 

When I completed my first half-marathon, I celebrated, nursed sore muscles, and soon got back to doing it one more time, and then again, and again, and again. I don’t have a definite goal of doing a set number of runs in a year, but do follow the simple rinse-repeat cycle. The glory of most recent run remains with me only for a short time, then it’s time to do it once more.

This is no different from the numerous examples we see in corporate life where successful leaders don’t bask and boast on their past accomplishments. Past accomplishments are by definition in the past – the clock is constantly reset and it’s always time to get back on drill once more.

Each project or effort is a new challenge, and as the financial analysts love to say, past performance is not an indicator of future success. Successful leaders never take themselves or their success for granted.

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