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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Leadership Parallels from the Marathon

Next Sunday sees the 30th staging of the London Marathon.

The running of a Marathon is an easy metaphor for business leadership and management: the leader keeps the organisation focused on the big goal - the finish line - and all the value that comes from reaching it. The business manager has to focus on the activity and workflow - the running itself - keeping the motivation up by focusing on smaller intermediate goals.

It turns out that this seems to be what many runners accomplish for themselves. The value of what completing the marathon means to them is the force that keeps them moving over the months and weeks of training. Whether these marathoners are running for health, for a cause or charity, for a loved one or for first or their 30th marathon, the meaning behind crossing the finish line is a vision that they hold to throughout not just the race, but before and after as well.

Business leadership conducts a parallel function. It is the leader’s job to create and communicate the organisational vision, mission and meaning. A strong leader keeps the value of the large goal in front of their organisational or team members. The leadership role often enthusiastically answers the "why?" of the overall organisation activity.

In the midst of the marathon, especially on a day where the body doesn’t seem to remember all that training, it is hard to cling to the value of the finish line as motivation. Many runners  speak about creating smaller goals or playing "mental tricks" on themselves.

Here are some: They convince themselves that they are starting a new run every five miles; or they pick the farthest telephone pole they can see and decide to run just that much further - and once reaching it, do it again; or they have friends place themselves at various points along the race and run to each friend, knowing they won’t be able to quit or someone will be disappointed.

Business managers don’t try to trick employees, but they do try to focus them on shorter-term, more immediate goals. One of the keys to this strategy of breaking down intermediate steps is for managers to reflect and celebrate the success of making the intermediate goals back to the team. Teams need to recognise the completion of sequential goals to keep their motivation up to reach the next one.

And then there is one more critical factor marathon runners thrive on: community. During training it may be their running partners or charity running team. Many run the race with a partner or mentor, or find a companion along the way to run with for at least part of the race.

These athletes inspire a larger community as well - the thousands of spectators who line the course, actively cheering and encouraging. Business leaders and managers who foster community build support and resilience into their organisations as well.


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