By Stephen Gilliland
For years I have told people that leadership is a marathon. You have to pace yourself. Find a sustainable way to deliver leadership value and maintain your life. Dig down and endure longer than you think you can. As a runner, this metaphor made a lot of sense to me.
I ran my first and only marathon a week before my 40th birthday, almost nine years ago. I trained for a year, suffering injuries and setbacks along the way, rebuilding slowly. When my marathon time came – the San Diego Rock and Roll marathon – we were enjoying a summer vacation at the beaches of north county San Diego. Five days before the marathon, I wiped out on my surfboard (another mid-life crisis hobby), kicked out of the wave, and sliced the bottom of my foot open on my surfboard fin. Later that day in the ER I asked the doctor if stitches or no stitches would be better for running a marathon. He laughed and said I wouldn’t be on my foot, let along running a marathon. He didn’t understand how long I had trained. I asked him what if I was stupid enough to try running it, and he recommended no stitches. I was on crutches for 3 days, tried a 2 mile practice run the day before, and then ran the marathon with my foot taped tightly.
It hurt for the first 5 miles and then the endorphins kicked in. My running partner paced me perfectly so that the marathon was fun and I finished strong. I had done it. I trained. I overcame adversity. And I completed a marathon with a smile on my face and feeling strong. I sent this picture of me crossing the finish line to the ER doctor with a thank you note hand written on the back.
This was my leadership metaphor. Yet, I no longer think it is right. You see, I think leadership is actually more like a series of sprints. Rather than carefully pacing yourself and enjoying the distance, I think most leadership positions require we go flat out as fast as we can for short bursts when it is needed. Situations arise and we respond.
The secret of the leadership sprint is the recovery. We can go hard and fast to do what it takes, as long as we also take time to recover, time to slow down, talk to people, recheck our priorities. What do you do to recover in your leadership sprint? How do you make sure you are ready for the next sprint, whenever it should occur? For me, I check in with people – take the time to make sure they are okay. I brainstorm new initiatives. I clean out backlogged emails. My non-work time is also critical to my recovery. Connecting with my wife, my kids, my passion for cooking all help me recover.
I think what is really important in enduring the leadership sprints is to recognize the importance of the recovery process. You see if we treat leadership as marathon, the implication is to just keep going. But when viewing leadership as a sprint, you recognize that recovery is the key to success. Make sure you take the time to recover!
Associate Dean, Executive Education