Leadership is like running a marathon

Leadership is like running a marathon

On April 15, 2013, the world changed forever once again. Two bombs exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon. This act of terror killed and maimed innocent people participating in a long tradition of physical accomplishment. During and following this crisis, numerous examples of courageous leadership emerged. Leadership during a crisis is critical to outcomes.

Leadership is a complex phenomenon regardless of whether it is in the context of a crisis or normal day-to-day activities. To simplify understanding, leadership can be broken down into three groups of competencies: 1) intra-personal leadership, 2) inter-personal leadership and 3) organizational leadership.

Training: Intra-Personal Leadership

Training to run a marathon refers to the physical and mental preparation and conditioning that must take place prior to running a marathon. Intra-Personal Leadership refers to the leadership that takes place within the individual through self-awareness along with the personal and professional identity required when practicing leadership. There are three competencies under this heading: 1) philosophical foundations, 2) ethics and 3) continuous learning. A philosophical foundation is the competency of understanding one’s worldview and how worldview influences the practice of leadership. Leadership ethics is the competency made up of the principles and standards that guide leaders in their work and relationships with others. Continuous learning is the leadership competency of being committed to and practicing of continuous personal, interpersonal and organizational learning.

Running a marathon requires a running foundation. Being a leader requires a philosophical foundation. A marathon is 26.2 miles long. The preparation of body and mind to run a marathon is comparable to preparing the body and mind for leadership. Running a marathon requires a running foundation, establishing internal standards for goal achievement and being committed to continuous development as a runner. Some runners are genetically inclined to excel at running long distances, but not even the most elite runners compete in a marathon without preparation. One cannot simply wake up one day and decide to run a marathon that afternoon. Preparation is essential to running 26.2 miles. Without a foundation of running routinely over a period of time, a mind-set of principled discipline and standards to complete a training program and the ability and desire to develop as a long-distance runner, one is destined to failure.

Similar to building a running foundation, leaders must have an understanding of their philosophical foundation. A leader’s worldview and core values guide his thoughts and actions. Just like a marathon runner’s commitment to building a running foundation, leaders must be committed to his or her core values. No one is born a marathon runner, and likewise, no one is born a leader. Some individuals may be inclined to naturally excel in leadership, yet an awareness of one’s core values that guide actions will aide any leader in providing more effective leadership. The importance of this process is a vital concept to understanding leadership (Hamilton and Bean, 2005). Competent leaders have a strong foundation in core values. Without a solid philosophical foundation of core values, a mind-set of principled discipline and standards and the ability and desire to develop as a leader, one is destined to failure.

Running a marathon requires a set of principles that guide training. Being a leader requires a set of principles that guide one’s actions and activities. Having the proper equipment is a general principle of marathon training. Training is very demanding on a runner’s body, legs in particular, so a good pair of running shoes are essential. Long runs are a vital component to the marathon training regimen. Long runs prepare the body for the stress and strain of running continuously mile after mile. Similarly, rest and nutrition are equally important. Adequate rest and proper fueling are not an option! These principles are necessary to make it to the starting line. The 10% Rule is another principle that needs to be followed. A marathon runner should never increase weekly mileage by more than 10% per week. A weekly increase greater than 10% dramatically increases the likelihood of injury. Cross training is another general principle of marathon training. One session each week of cross raining, activities like cycling or swimming, greatly reduce injury risk and helps prevent boredom. These are just a few of the general principles that guide a runner’s actions and activities.

Like marathon runners, leaders require a set of principles that guide their actions and activities. This set of principles can be referred to as leadership ethics. Ethics refers to moral behavior that is within societal norms. Doing what is right as a leader can be very demanding, so just as a runner needs a good pair of running shoes, a leader needs a good understanding of ethics. Ethics in leadership deal with moral leadership behavior within societal and organizational norms. The extent that a leader’s behavior measures up to societal standards determines how ethical that leader is. Standards for societal behavior vary within multiple contexts. Clear standards and norms help organizational members distinguish right from wrong. A person’s behavior has to stand the test of law, organizational policies, professional and trade association codes, popular expectations as to what is fair and what is right in addition to an individual’s own internal moral standards. Although basic values tend to remain unchanged over time, changes in economic conditions and advances in technology have led to different ethical interpretations. Leaders need to proactively be on the lookout for potential ethical problems before they occur. Leaders require a set of principles that guide their actions and activities.

Running a marathon requires continuous learning as does leadership. Once the first half of a marathon is in the rearview mirror, the key to marathon success is running the second half. Proper preparation actually makes the first half relatively easy. Preparing for the second half requires continuous learning. The term “hitting the wall” in a marathon refers to a point near the end, somewhere around the 20 to 22 mile mark, where the runner is mentally and physically exhausted. Continuing seems near impossible. For rookies, mental and physical preparation in the training process is essential to break through the wall and continue to the finish. Veteran marathoners also prepare for this moment, but veteran marathoners also have experience on their side. Experience allows reflection on hitting the wall. This allows a runner to conceptualize that experience and try new and different ideas on how to deal with this phenomenon. Implementing these ideas in the training process enables the execution of a strategy during the actual marathon.

Likewise, leaders need to seek out resources for continuous learning. Proper preparation through continuous learning enhances leadership effectiveness. Combining new knowledge with experience provides the opportunity for leaders to experiment with new ideas, to seek out new and better ways of achievement. How many times do leaders “hit the wall” and not finish what he starts? Through preparation and continuous learning, one can break through the wall. Competent veteran leaders prepare for a variety of situations utilizing experience, knowledge and execution of strategy through continuous learning. Competent leaders and competent marathoners must be committed to practicing continuous learning.

Next week: The Starting Line: Inter-Personal Leadership

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