• Running

    You can learn a lot about how people approach their careers by looking at how they approach their hobbies. Running is such an important part of my life that I have created a separate blog for it, Predawn Runner. Whether you are recreational or competitive, I welcome you to join me there in discussing how we fit running into an already-full life.

Seven Leadership Lessons from the Marathon

One’s approach to their personal hobbies says a lot about their approach to professional pursuits (so long as they are passionate about what they do).  Successfully reaching a personal goal provides lessons that apply to professional endeavors.  Having recently reached my own goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, this is a good opportunity to reflect on the approach that got me there, and what lessons apply to one of my professional passions – leadership development.

Set Specific Goals

It may seem intuitive, but to reach a goal, you first have to set one.  All too often, actions are taken without a specific goal in mind because they seem like “the right thing to do.”  I spent much of 2009 just running with the general goal of losing weight, but not committing to a specific target.  While exercise is certainly noble, without combining it with a better diet and monitoring calories, there may be little weight loss.  When I got specific on my goal to qualify for Boston, I determined losing 20 pounds by May would be a key objective along the path, and it became easier to control my diet in addition to increasing my calorie burn.

Commit Yourself Publicly

If you don’t make your goal clear and visible, you lose a valuable source of incentive to reach it – your pride and the encouragement of friends, colleagues, or employees.  How can anyone offer you support if they don’t know what you are working towards?  In the case of qualifying for Boston, I first committed to my wife that I would get there (and she developed an enthusiasm about going to Boston next year), and then to my friends on Dailymile, who offered further support and encouragement for reaching the goal. The fear of failing to reach a publicly-committed goal can be a powerful motivator; this is why CEOs of companies like P&G and GE publicly state goals such as achieving a certain amount of organic growth.

Get Buy-in from Other Stakeholders

If you need the support of others to reach your goal, they must not only be “informed” of it, but actively understand and agree with it.  If your goal doesn’t inspire others, support will be lacking. If my wife viewed my goal of reaching Boston as purely selfish or perhaps even unachievable, then she would resent my early morning or late evening runs that interrupt her sleep or take away our time together.  Of course, the fact that I also recognized the other commitments I have as a father and professional makes it easier to gain support for my goals, by making it clear that the family and work roles come first. In business, if your customers, suppliers, partners, and, most importantly, employees don’t accept your goals, they will not have the motivation to provide the support needed to achieve them.

Plan the Work, but Know When to Be Flexible

Training for a marathon, just like executing a business initiative, requires establishing and following a plan.  You can’t simply go out and run a random distance at a random pace and expect to achieve your goal. Each day has a purpose, be it working on your pace, improving your stamina, or resting and recovering.  However, circumstances like weather, work conflicts, injury, or family commitments will interfere with the plan, in which case you need to have an open mind to making adjustments within the context of still achieving the training you need (such as running at a different time, shifting days in the schedule around, or lengthening or shortening a workout).  It’s even better if you can have coping mechanisms identified in advance, so you can react quickly, with minimal stress, to these disturbances. The same is true for business – you have to start with a plan, but have the right processes in place to identify when changes are needed and make the changes as necessary.

Establish Appropriate Metrics and Use the Right Technology

In running, there are two or three metrics that matter – time, distance, and (if you follow this method) heart rate.  If you cannot accurately measure these, then you will be unable to track your progress.  Investing in the right technology, such as a GPS-enabled watch, is important, if not essential.  In addition, it is helpful to test your progress towards your goal occasionally; in running this is done through specific workouts designed to test your ability o hold a desired pace over a specified distance.  In business, of course, similar principals apply – you can’t control what you can’t measure, and you can’t wait until the end to begin measuring – you need milestones to track your progress towards a goal.

Stay Focused on the Goal and Ignore Distractions

Working towards a goal means that you have to forego other opportunities.  In running, it might be a very tempting race, or it might be a night out with friends before a big run.  In business, it may be a request for a new product, or a project offered by a customer.  While you may occasionally have the capacity to take advantage of such an opportunity, this must be weighed against the risk of losing progress towards your ultimate goal. In many cases, it is better to pass on the short-term gains to keep the focus on the big picture priorities.

Proceed with Confidence

If you doubt your ability to reach a goal, your probability of doing so drops dramatically.  You can find countless references to the benefits if “acting as if” you have already achieved your goal.  While this can certainly bleed over into overconfidence, there is a lot of value in pursuing your training aggressively, with the belief that you are already at the level you need to be to succeed.  In my case, I certainly didn’t go so far as to book a trip to Boston, but I did explore the timing of the race next year and the process for registering.  And, I confess, I wrote this blog post two weeks before the race.  In business, if you act as a non-serious participant in a new market, you will be taken exactly as you act – not seriously.

The above steps are essential in establishing yourself as a leader, whether it is as a runner or a business manager.  If you don’t set and communicate goals, energize others towards achieving them, set a plan with appropriate metrics, stay focused, and act with confidence, the probabilities of success in any endeavor suffer grievously.

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  • Christoffel

    Hi Gregg,
    I found your blog through the LinkedIn Marathon finishers group and found your article extremely good and relevant.
    What I would like to add from my own experience (and could be labelled as lesson #8) is that running for charity can add an extra stimulus to get you through the most difficult moments in the race. Thinking of all the known and unknown people who have contributed took me through difficult miles and the incentives some people built in gave me that extra energy shot for the remainder of the race.

    Best regards from The Netherlands – consider the Amsterdam Marathon in October!

  • http://gregstrosaker.com Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comment. Ironically, just after posting this I realized that I had overlooked the charity aspect as a motivation for keeping to your training. I think of it as a subset of committing yourself publicly but it does have a little more meaning and importance because there are others who will truly rely on you to meet your commitment – great addition!
    My company has its European HQ in the Netherlands (near Maastrict), maybe there will be an opportunity to combine a business trip with the Amsterdam Marathon in the future!

  • Jim Matorin


    I definitely enjoyed how you correlated your experiences as a performance runner to goals of being a corporate leader. Flexibilty is one thing we all need to understand, but also balanced correctly with being resolute. Yes, do avoid distractions like launching new products that are off your core business proposition – VIA.


  • http://gregstrosaker.com Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Jimmy, I think it's always wise to look at the ways one can generalize the experiences and learnings from one discipline into another (as you did in your post on lessons learned from the great artists). And I haven't checked in on VIA of late to see how it is doing, do you know of any news?

  • http://twitter.com/Ovurmind Viktor Ovurmind

    The link between leadership and marathons is a continuation of the industrial age drive that we are goal driven from a start to a finish line. The athlete's mind is more interesting to me http://discovermagazine.com/2010/apr/16-the-bra… because then all athletes can be studied in an organic reality.


  • http://gregstrosaker.com Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comment Viktor, interesting article. Your comment regarding marathon runners being “goal driven” is why I also think they tend to make great employees.

  • http://gregstrosaker.com Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comment Viktor, interesting article. Your comment regarding marathon runners being “goal driven” is why I also think they tend to make great employees.

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