One More Leadership Lesson from the Boston Marathon

Here is a picture of the elite men’s winner of this year’s Boston Marathon. His name is Robert Cheruiyot from Kenya. His time was a new course record. There is one more aspect of marathon running that strikes me as having parallels to Christ-centered leadership. The issue is that of nutrition. It is a well established fact that nutrition plays a huge role in the life of an athlete in performing well. For years carbo-loading has also been a well established practice for long distance running–or any endurance event. It matters how you eat before a race and it matters how you maintain your nutrition during a race. I just read an article about the most common mistakes for marathon runners–and one of them is not considering proper pre race nutrition. You don’t want to eat an exotic meal the night before a race. It will definitely mess with your digestive system resulting in some unwanted race time consequences. Not only do you want to build up and maintain a regular eating regimen for best results–but you also want to build the same race day habits that will serve you best. So eating the same types of things at about the same time will help your body regulate what you need during the race. You also want to combine the right combination of water, sports drink, and other foods or gels during the race to maintain needed calories during the race. As the other posts have suggested all of this really matters if you want to finish and do well.

Nutrition is important for leadership too. What you take in will come out. I recently saw an out of context quote by Andy Stanley that said he did not believe there were any real differences between secular leadership and Christian leadership. Now to be fair to Andy I’m sure he was taking aim at the false dichotomy that people can create between the two–mainly not employing best corporate practices in the church that will aid in leading and managing the church. And I imagine if you pressed Andy he would readily agree that there are some differences–even Scripture notes them (Matthew 20:20-28). I would strongly suggest one huge difference is where you are drawing your “nourishment” for leading. If we are not “drinking deeply daily” from the truth of God’s Word then we only have ourselves as a reservoir for practicing our skills. And I have found that I will quickly slip into all kinds of bad practices when that is true. So it is imperative that a Christ-centered leader be in the Word individually and corporately to lead well and to ultimately point people to the face of Christ. It wont do to “binge” every now and then–or always eat “sweets”–or only eat what is easy and likeable. We must digest all of God’s Word over time and do so in daily chunks. And we must gather with other like minded pilgrims to be under the teaching of God’s Word so that the ally of community keeps us from false teaching and practices. This will absolutely impact who we are becoming as a leader and how we lead. It will make the difference in finishing well and finishing at all. Lead well!

More Leadership Lessons from the Boston Marathon

The hardest parts of any marathon are the beginning and the end–specifically the first three miles and the last three miles. The problem with the first three miles is managing your adrenaline, arriving at your desired running pace (not that of the crowd), and just flat feeling kind of pained and stiff. It always seems that in the first three miles your breathing is rougher, your legs feel out of synch with the rest of your body, and you are constantly watching your feet so as not to land on someone else’s foot and turn an ankle. After three miles the runners thin out and you settle in to your desired stride and pace. The hardest part of Boston’s first three miles is the immediate down hill feature of the course that tempts you to get out way too fast–not keeping enough in reserve for the Newton Hills.

The reasons for the last three miles being so hard are probably more obvious. I always feel like I have been at the mall all day with my wife–and I desperately just want to sit down. Mentally you know you are only a 5K from the end–but you actually start to question why you ever thought this would be fun and you vow never to do another one. At the Boston Marathon you have already endured the Newton Hills and your legs are just shot. I found myself having no thoughts at all–just the notion that if I make it to the end I can gulp down a big yoghurt smoothie and a bag of potato chips (that is part of what they greet you with at the end of the race).

I think there are leadership lessons here once again. Many young leaders are so excited about their first leadership responsibility. The adrenaline is flowing, the temptation to “get out too fast” is right there, and you have yet to really find your leadership pace and capacity. A lot of mistakes are made by young leaders–and honestly that is part of the leadership learning curve. We are all well aware how hard it is to finish well in leadership. The temptation to quit–or to cut corners–or just to settle–is great. Paul said it well in 2 Timothy 4:7–“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” That should be our aim. I am convinced that three traits are vital to seeing leaders finish well: humility, always remaining a learner, and intimacy with Christ. These things will carry us when our leadership legs are tired and the temptation to quit is great.

One of the greatest things about the Boston Marathon is the crowd–especially in the final three miles as you near Boylston Street and the finish line. Thousands of people are lined up on both sides wildly cheering you on. We too have a great cloud of witnesses rooting for us to finish strong (Hebrews 12:1-3). We must run with endurance the race set before us with our eyes ever fixed on Jesus! Lead well–all the way to the end!

More Leadership Lessons from the Boston Marathon

This is a picture of the start of the 110th Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, MA. We started in two waves this year–some 10,000 runners in each wave. What you see in this picture is largely proximity without community. Yet community is very important to marathon training and marathon running. When engaging in the 16-18 week training to prepare for a marathon the week day workouts are easy enough to do alone. And often it is hard to find someone that can match your schedule for weekday runs. But there is a long run required every weekend–that builds up over time to at least a few 20 mile runs and beyond. These are done better with someone else. Running for three hours or more at one level can simply be boring by yourself. Even the ipod playlist gets a little old after while. And more than that the temptation to quit a long run–or to at least cut corners–can become immense when running alone. But running with a fellow trainee can make all the difference. There can be great conversation. There can be the mutual encouragement and accountability to make it to the end of the training run. There can be the help needed if you sustain an injury. Actually, within the long distance running crowd, you will often see a pretty strong community that exists. Even during a race–running with someone is a huge benefit to reaching your goals, or simply completing the course. If you don’t have a running mate for a race you will often see temporary friendships developed on the spot between those of similar skill and pace. Again, the camaraderie to get you through can make the difference.

Leadership is like that too. Leadership has a built in tendency to isolate. The old axiom that it’s lonely at the top is all to real. Sometimes the weight of decision making or people problem solving can leave you seemingly with no one to turn to. And when leaders become isolated all kinds of bad things are in store. God made us for community–real community where there is confession, humility, burden bearing, and prayerful encouragement. We have all seen the headlines of failed spiritual leaders–usually you can track most of the failures back to isolation–lack of community. They had proximity but no real community. You see leadership goes better in community too. We need the freshness–we need the accountability–we need the encouragement. Remember–leadership is an endurance event too. And it was meant to be lived out in community.

Leadership and the Boston Marathon

I just completed my third Boston Marathon. It is truly an awesome race. There is no way the fans can be any better than in Boston. From beginning to end people cheer you on and offer any help they can. But the course is daunting and after three tries I feel like I am just beginning to figure it out.

It was my eighth marathon overall and over the years I have reflected often on the parallels between the Christian life and long distance running. Several of the biblical writers did also (Paul in 2 Timothy 4:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 12:1-2). I also believe there are several parallels for the life of a leader–and over the next few days I want to share some of those thoughts.

Today let’s start by noting that a marathon takes preparation. It is foolish to just wake up on race day and decide to run. I recently heard of a guy who did just that–he lost eight toe nails and could not walk for days.

There are really three types of preparation for a marathon–and all three are necessary. There is the 16-18 week running preparation for the actual race itself. There is also the need to run some shorter races to be prepared for race conditions and a race atmosphere. Shorter races also help you determine your own race capacity and help you monitor your level of development (or lack there of) for a marathon. And there is making sure that you have prepared by having the right equipment–it is not wise to run in Bermuda shorts and flip flops. The right equipment can make a huge difference in beginning and actually finishing a marathon.

Leadership is similar. The Scriptures teach us that “he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much” (Luke 16:10). In other words our leadership muscles are built on smaller tasks–with others watching over us, helping us to take next steps. We grow into leadership–not just leap into it. Also, there is the specific preparation for larger, more complex leadership endeavors. They may require specialized training, seeking out outside expertise, faith risk, and the gathering of more resources. A wise leader looks ahead and makes preparation for what lies ahead. For the Boston Marathon you better be aware that the first 16 miles are net down hill–and then you hit the Newton hills–seven inclines ending with Heartbreak Hill. Most first time runners quietly destroy their quad muscles in the first 16 miles by going out too fast and then have nothing left for the Newton hills. The race is over for many right at mile 21. The difference is in the mental and physical preparation.

The lesson? Do you aspire to lead? Look for the small, less desirable opportunities first. Be found faithful there–and let others ask you to step up to greater responsibility. Look ahead and make solid preparation for whatever God has asked you to do. Find mentors who have led and are a step ahead of you in leading and life. Train–because leading is a long distance event too.

About that picture and “white board” leadership

The previous post was a picture only. Now it is time to provide a little explanation. That is a picture of me looking out over the Colorado landscape from Montgomery Pass–down the Poudre Canyon. Montgomery Pass is close to the Continental Divide–I am looking west and there is about a 40 mile an hour wind right in my face. This was taken in July of 2005 and I was faced with some critical decisions–the biggest of which was where would my family and I serve in ministry for the next step of our lives.

I am 49 and I am finding that change is becoming more and more difficult. Yet a friend of mine, Eric Swanson, counseled me that a leader occasionally needs a new “white board” in their life. We must go back to simple. Leaders by their leadership acts rightfully take things that are in some state of chaos or simplicity and bring clarity leading to greater complexity. But after a season a leader needs to go back to simple. This allows for fresh faith and fresh learning–and I am convinced that a leader’s longevity is in large measure tied to his or her ability to remain a learner. This conversation started me down a path of trying to refine my thinking about faith. What is faith at it’s core? We know from the book of Hebrews that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But earlier in the book of Hebrews I believe we have faith at it’s core being put on display. In Hebrews chapter three the writer quotes Psalm 95–“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” The writer makes this quote because he is warning his original audience to be very careful that they don’t fall prey to “an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” You see these Hebrew believers were under some amount of persecution from Rome and their great tendency was to run to “safety.” Safety was probably being defined as running back to Judaism. The Jewish faith was a recognized and sanctioned religion under the Roman government–it was “safe”–but Christianity was not sanctioned and was not “safe.” I believe the overall theme of Hebrews is this, “There is no better nor safer place than Jesus Himself.” Safety is not being defined as a lack of trouble–it is in Jesus himself, our Great High Priest. But what is the writer pointing to in Psalm 95? Psalm 95 is an invitation to worship tied to a warning. The warning at the end of the Psalm ties back to a historical incident in Exodus 17. The end of Psalm 95 is ominous–it speaks of a generation not entering into God’s rest. If you go back to Exodus 17 you find an episode in the life of the Israelites (remember the original audience of Hebrews-Jewish believers) where they were complaining and grumbling about life in the wilderness after being liberated from Egypt. Their ultimate complaint was “Is the Lord among us or not?” And it is here that I think we get to the essence of faith. More and more I am seeing active faith as the belief in the absolute goodness and presence of God. That is what the Israelites were ultimately questioning–is God really good? Is God really present in our circumstances? Our ability to exercise faith on a daily basis in every circumstance that we find ourselves is based on these same aspects of God’s character. So in every situation I must fall back on the absolute goodness and presence of God to move forward. And I can ultimately avoid a hard heart if I regularly trust in the absolute goodness and presence of God in my life.

Back to the picture and our decision. The decision before us was whether to move our family to the country of Italy to trust God for the university students of that nation. I could see several reasons why this was stupid–my age, the possible negative impact on my children, our parents ages, my inexperience in cross cultural ministry, etc. But there was a divine restlessness that my wife and I sensed–God was nudging us toward change–and the opportunity before us was certainly a clean whiteboard that would require fresh learning and fresh faith. And with fresh faith applied there are fresh vistas on God, life and ministry. Thus the picture. This picture has become somewhat of a metaphor for me and for how I want to finish my life. The journey to Montgomery Pass was not easy. But the vista was incredible! What I could see from there was unmatched from anything I could see at the trailhead–down there were only trees and a narrow path that lead somewhere. But on top was grand beauty, crisp air, a feeling of exhilaration, and a great sense of accomplishment and purpose. Fresh faith takes us there in life too–because ultimately it takes us to the person of Christ. He is exhilarating–it is he who provides purpose–he breathes fresh life into us–he is supremely beautiful. He is absolutely good and he is intimately present.

By the way–we are moving to Florence, Italy in late August.