Leadership Is Like A Marathon: Part 2-The Start

This is the second in a series of comparing a marathon race to leadership.  As I mentioned yesterday, I have run ten marathons in my lifetime.  I have run Austin four times, Columbus once, Boston three times, Rome once and Florence once.  I have always been intrigued with some of the parallels between running and leading.  Today, we will take a look at the start.  Here are three ways in which the start of any marathon and leading are similar by principle.

1. You Can Get Out Too Fast.  This is the number one temptation with any marathon race.  This is especially true if it is your first race.  You have been preparing for this day for up to 18 weeks.  You are typically surrounded by thousands of other hyped up runners.  The atmosphere is electric because the end result is still unknown.  There is some guy on the public address system whose whole job is to get you pumped up for the race.  The adrenaline is readily flowing.  And there lies the problem.  I remember my first marathon, which was in Austin, Texas.  I covered my first mile in seven minutes flat.  I already knew that I was in deep trouble given my age, training regimen, and natural abilities.  I still had 25.2 miles to go.   Needless to say, the “wall” came quicker than I anticipated.

I always cringe a little bit when I see a young leader whose star rises quickly.  Usually they are naturally gifted in some way.  Often they are good public communicators.  But the character preparation has not been fully formed yet.  All of the accolades and early successes can go to their head pretty quickly.  You literally have to take a long view on leadership.  It really isn’t about how you start but about how you finish.  Many leaders go up like a rocket and come down like a rock.  Many are even viewed as successful in their leadership endeavors but their lives are a mess.  There is a marathon axiom that is relevant here-“slow is fast.”  Beginning with my 2nd marathon, I often passed the rabbits around mile 18.  In my mind I was thinking, “I will see you again.”  They simply got out too fast.  The leadership analogy would be if they out ran their character and maturity.  More than anything, this requires feedback from those that love you and care about you more than they care about the results.  You need people like this who can “slow you down” in your leadership.

2. You Can Forget To Replenish Your Resources.  The second mistake I made in my first marathon was to not hydrate until about the 4th water station.  Why should I slow down when I was doing so well?  They have water and sports drinks every mile-I’ll catch the next one.  That thinking came back to haunt me.  By the time you are actually thirsty it’s too late.  You have to anticipate your body’s needs-not wait until the warning signs.  You can’t skip a water station, even if you only take a sip.  Cramps are the natural result.  I have seen many a prepared runner have to bow out of the race due to cramps which often result from dehydration.

Leading is similar.  You can’t out lead your resources.  You have to stay fresh in your learning and character growth.  You have to anticipate your needs and not cut corners.  This is where a coach or mentor can come in handy.  You need training, experience, coaching, assessment, feedback-and rest.  You need someone around you that can keep you grounded in the midst of success and encouraged in the midst failure.  This part of leading never ends.  It can actually become more difficult the longer you lead-because the tendency is always towards isolation and self sufficiency.  The greatest need here is often refreshment in the form of true rest.  Rest provides an opportunity for evaluation and reflection.  This has the added advantage of keeping you on course.  The goal is not to burn out in your leadership pursuits.  You want to make it to the end.

3. You Can Pace Off The Wrong Person.  It’s easy to be judgmental at the starting line.  You look around and try and size yourself up against the other runners in the field.  You pick out the one who “looks” like a veteran runner.  The one who has all of the running accoutriments-water bottle, Gu packs, dry-fit running attire, etc.  And usually you pick the person who can actually sustain a seven minute pace for 26.2 miles.  And you are dead-before you ever get to your first mile.  The most efficient race I ever ran was in Columbus, Ohio.  They had pace groups throughout the race.  I picked my desired time and stuck with the group.  I finished exactly when I wanted and qualified for Boston.

Young leaders who are just getting started also need to pace well and pick the right models.  Don’t look for flashy.  Look for steady.  Pace off of leaders past and leaders present.  Thanks to the internet you can have models from near by and models from afar.  Read and study their lives.  Learn from their successes and mistakes.  Discern the leadership principle at work more than the particular leadership practice.  We were not meant to go it alone.  Leadership is isolating enough-determine to pace off of someone.  This is where leadership cohort groups can be really profitable.  This could be a small group of people with whom you check in regularly.  They are fellow leaders and learners.  But choose carefully.  Character always succeeds.

Near the end of his life the Apostle Paul said these words as he sought to encourage a younger leader, ” I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  May this be our goal.

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