Deepthi Velkur talks to runners to understand what leadership lessons they have learnt from running marathons.

“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon” – Emil Zatopek (three-time Olympic gold medallist).

We’ve all heard how running is good for us. Research proves that running makes us healthier (both physically and mentally), happier and can even help each of us become a better leader. When we see a marathon runner in action, all we see is a solitary figure but dig a little deeper and you will see that she/he draws inspiration and energy from their fellow runners. Similarly, leaders draw inspiration and energy from professionals around them.

Running a marathon teaches us life lessons – the fact that you can achieve anything, you can push your body and mind to new limits as long as you have the will and determination. Some of these lessons can be translated into the leadership roles we play. In my conversation with several experienced runners, they shared leadership lessons they have learned from running.

Always have a goal.

A big goal provides direction and purpose. Small goals are what get things done.

Rajesh Chandrasekhar (Director – Operations, Cisco Systems) believes that there is a symbiotic relationship between running and leadership.  He says, “Setting goals, both small and big, motivates us to garner all our efforts and focus our energies towards achieving that goal. He goes on to add that without a clear target in mind, our potential is under-tapped and our purpose can wander”. He sums up his conversation by paraphrasing the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland – “If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which way you go!”

Anjana Mohan (General Manager, SEP India Pvt Ltd) likes to break things down when targeting a bigger goal. She chips in saying, “When a goal is overwhelming, just focus on a single step. The steps add up. Having a big goal is necessary to set up the path to achieving it. But once that is in place, just focusing on the single step ahead of you and staying in each moment is enough to get you to the goal. Breaking down a large goal into tiny little steps is an inevitable lesson of running”.

Deepa Bhat (AVP-Products, Prepmyskills) adds, “At work, I stay focused to completing smaller tasks and milestones without taking my eyes off the larger goal. I picture the victory, this re-energizes the team as well as me, celebrating the small joys and keep moving ahead”.

In running, you might set yourself a big goal of competing in a marathon major but you also set yourself smaller goals every week. Similarly, in leadership, you set yourself intermediate goals building up to the big target in mind. This helps build a sense of achievement as well as provides feedback on how you’re doing.

Being adaptive

 In a run, we do not always control every single factor, do we? In our corporate lives, we cannot manage every single dependency or risk, can we? When you run and the weather makes the route tricky, you adapt, you find a way to push through – that’s a lesson we all take into our corporate and entrepreneurship lives too.

Sagar Baheti (entrepreneur) who runs his own import and export stone business says, “Every time I run, I realize it’s a unique experience. If you’re running the same route, it feels different every time depending on so many factors like what you’ve eaten before the run, how much sleep you managed to get, what’s your state of mind. A lot of these factors, sometimes may not be under our control. Similarly, when you work with people on projects, there are so many factors that may or may not be in our control but we have to strategize and adapt to make the best of what we have at a given time”.

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Anjana Mohan’s take is, “Learning to refocus on what you want and why is a key leadership trait. The miles can be long and rough. There are many obstacles in the way. But when a runner focuses on what they want and why the challenges of the moment melt away. Good leaders are able to focus people on what awaits on the top of the mountain, which reduces the strain of the climb and motivates them to keep moving towards it”.

Ram Narasimhan (Director, Colt Technologies) believes that if you keep the end goal in sight, you will automatically adapt to changing situations, “No two runs are the same and there will be situations where conditions are less than perfect (and these will be many), but then you learn to take them in your stride and work around them. Sounds familiar in real life? Day in and day out at work, I come across situations that need resolution, decisions and course corrections which may throw plans awry, but then running has taught me to keep the end goal in sight and the process will follow”.

Fail and learn early.

We all make fundamental mistakes in training, during a run, and in our lives. How we bounce back and learn from it, is the key to being successful.

Bindu Juneja (Teacher, Bethany High) has this to say, “Disciplined decision-making will help us in taking intellectual decisions based on your feedback loops”.

Pramod Deshpande (Senior VP, MFX Services) believes that as a runner we have to deal with negativity every time we miss a target or a weekly goal. Similarly, in the business world he says, “a leader should provide honest feedback to his team, even at the risk of being unpopular, only then can his team members achieve their potential”.

Anjana Mohan says “Failure is more important than success. Our successes validate our strategies and what we already know but it’s the failures that educate us about what we don’t know. A failure at a running event makes us more mindful about everything we did during our training, and what we could have done differently. In life, leadership or running failure forces us to face our ‘Lessons learned”.

Patience and Perseverance

Four strong values that help us achieve our goals in life – be it completing a run in personal best time or closing out that critical project.

Subramanyam Putrevu (CIO, Mindtree) is spot on when he says “Distance running is not a short sprint, it is sustaining the will and self-belief over the distance at a steady consistent pace with enormous patience. You need to have a lot of perseverance to build it step by step without injuring yourself. This is how you build the business or execute large projects”.

Pramod Deshpande adds, “With self-belief, discipline and hard work we can surprise ourselves with achievements, which we never imagined”.

Vikram Achanta (Co-founder and CEO, Tulleeho) says, “Hanging in there till the bitter end is especially valuable if you’re an entrepreneur where the journey is never easy – Finish strong”

Deepa Bhat, also adds “Training makes you realize the amount of hard work it takes to each milestone – What you put in is what you get. Running is the greatest metaphor! Sometimes you fail to make it to the expected target, that does not mean, you never will make it.  You only get to your milestones after focused, determined efforts for a longer time period”.

Run your own race

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When you’re running the distance, you’re competing against yourself and not against other runners. Similarly, in a leadership role, we compete against our performance targets while keeping an eye on how others are performing too.

Annie Acharya (Senior Manager HR at a leading pharma company) gives her view on the subject, “there are 5 things common in leadership and running: a) common objective for group yet individual targets – you may train with a group yet run your own race, b) your competition is you, c) No excuses – like in leadership there is no excuse to fail, runners have no excuse not to run, d) running your own race, knowing your limitations and yet learning from others (leaders don’t shy from copying others best practices, yet they need to know their limitations and e) you don’t stop until you finish. Whether it’s 10K, 21K or full marathon runners finish their race. Similarly, in leadership, it is expected to achieve your targets irrespective of the hurdles or difficulties”.

Ram Narasimhan also adds to this. He says,The first thing running teaches you is self-awareness. It highlights your strengths and exposes your weakness in a way that you adapt yourself to run using your strengths. The same is true with leadership too – a true leader is one who is aware of his weakness and uses his strengths to overcome them”.

Be uncomfortable

Spending too much time in your comfort zone causes it to shrink and negatively impacts performance. Just like a runner who loses fitness if they are not pushing themselves, a leader who does not push herself/himself and their team outside their comfort zone are likely to be under-prepared for the challenge.

Anjana Mohan says, “Getting used to being uncomfortable is a necessary ingredient for change. We rarely achieve anything from our comfort zones. Whether it is having to wake up early and get out in the cold, or whether it is a particularly difficult and sunny stretch to keep running through, it is important to get acquainted with one’s own discomfort to facilitate change. Understanding the level of discomfort that one can tolerate without being discouraged is what determines the amount of transformation that one is capable of. This is a leadership lesson to motivate others as well as oneself”.

Recovery is important 

Most marathon runners take this seriously. They know that if they don’t build rest days and recovery into their schedule, they will burn out. In business, unfortunately, this is often ignored. Recovery needs to include physical and mental recovery to avoid exhaustion.

Bindu Juneja (Teacher, Bethany High) adds, “Recovery is as important as running, often ignored by runners, working long hours on a continuous basis reduces overall effectiveness”.

While running an actual marathon may not be what all of us want to do, in our leadership role, we are (metaphorically) training for a marathon every day you turn up for work.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

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