Six Things Running Taught Me About Leading

A life-long runner, associate professor Malia Mason reflects on what the sport taught her about leadership.

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I’ve been running my entire adult life. From cross-country, to marathons, to long-distance trail runs, I’ve logged hundreds of miles over the years. For a challenge I take on mostly on my own, I’ve been surprised by just how much running has taught me about being part of, and leading, a team.

You have to love it.

Running is hard—too hard to be any good at it if you don’t find it enjoyable. Preparing for a marathon, or any race where you have an ambitious goal, involves months of training, getting up early and getting out there, regardless of the weather, your schedule, or anything else that might be going on. If you’re going to stick with it, you have to love it.

Similarly, it’s just too hard to be a good leader if you don’t genuinely love it. People often seek out leadership roles for things like money, power, and prestige, but these perks have little to do with the actual work of leading, and, like running to lose weight, they’re not the only way to achieve them. Leading requires establishing and communicating a vision, working with and through other people, and taking responsibility for challenging problems. You can’t just be in it for the ends, you have to love the process.

But it won’t always love you back.

People commonly think that if they are consistent with their training, if they eat right, get enough sleep, stretch, and so forth, that their effort will consistently translate into exceptional performance. But it doesn’t always work that way. At various points in my running career, it just didn’t love me back.

In college, running was my life — everything revolved around it. Then I got injured and had to sit out a season. Having the thing I loved most taken from me was frustrating and heartbreaking. As a leader, you’re bound to face similar setbacks. Projects will flop. Ideas will be shot down. Tough times will come and difficult decisions will have to be made. So many things are out of your control that if you never experience failure, you’re probably not risking enough.

The struggles, however, are almost always temporary.

While I am generally a pretty steady racer where pace is concerned, I’ve never felt great for a whole race. Every race is a mental and physical rollercoaster. There are minutes and miles where I just don’t feel great; I want to drop out. But eventually, if you are patient, you'll get that second—or third, or fourth—wind.

From Napoleon Hill, the author of one of the earliest professional self-help books, to the present day, the advice for leaders has become nearly cliché: success often follows much failure. As a leader, you’ll have to be persistent but forbearing to build consensus and get everyone on board. You’ll have to handle unanticipated obstacles. Sometimes, you’ll just have to wait for the landscape to change. Wait out the storm; new opportunities lie on the other side.

Growth comes from challenges; they are opportunities for betterment.

Most weekly training plans consist of at least a couple of workouts that require you to “dig deep” on little fuel. To make the distance on pace, you’ll need to push past your comfort zone. You don’t improve as a runner by consistently doing what feels comfortable. You improve when your body reaches a point of panic— when it’s about to shutdown — and you force yourself to push through for just a little bit longer. A tired moment is a rare opportunity to improve.

A.G. Lafley — who, as CEO, more than doubled the number of Procter & Gamble’s billion dollar brands — may have said this one best. “I think of my failures as a gift.” You can’t grow as a leader if everything goes swimmingly. It’s when things go wrong that you have the best opportunity to learn. Recognizing this makes it easier to push through the setbacks. They are opportunities for true growth. The mark of a great leader, no less than a great runner, isn’t never coming up short. It’s how you handle the challenges.

Keep it in perspective.

When things go wrong, it helps if you’re not a one-trick pony. It helps if your self-worth isn’t bound up entirely in how the running is going or in your role at work.

Success, both athletic and professional, requires almost single-minded focus. The ability to bring that level of dedication to any project is a blessing. But it is also a curse. It’s all too easy to define success narrowly, to let your athletic or career ambitions consume everything else. You need to think about the limits to what you’ll sacrifice and what you want from your life in a broad sense. For that, you’ll need perspective, and that’s where the people in your life may matter most.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, echoed the sentiment this summer after recovering from a cancer diagnosis, urging a gathering of young bankers not to lose sight of their personal lives. “I got sick last summer, and people ask me this question, you know, ‘Did it change what you think?’ Not really,” he said. “The most important thing to me is always family. JPMorgan can't do it for you — or wherever you work. And if you think that somehow you can neglect that on your rise up the thing, you're probably going to be wrong. You'll destroy your personal relationships. You'll destroy your life. You won't be healthy. You won't enjoy it.”

Sometimes, the hardest part is starting.

Sometimes the greatest barrier is just your own front door. I’ve been running for most of my life but, more often than not, I have to convince myself to get out on the road. This is especially true on days when I’ve got ambitious running plans for myself. I lay in my bed thinking, “not today,” or “I’m just too tired,” but once I set off, I remember why I started running in the first place.

Anytime you take on a significant challenge there’ll be that little voice in your head that says you’re in no position to start such a momentous task. But you can learn to mute it. No matter what the objective, the only way to make progress is to get out the door and start putting one foot in front of the other. Along the way, you’ll remember why you set that target for yourself in the first place. There’s nothing so rewarding as setting a goal that seems impossible, and then achieving it.

About the researcher

Malia Mason

Malia Mason studies negotiations and social judgment and decision making in one line of work. In a second, she studies how people regulate their...

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