Four things running has taught me about leadership

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I’m fairly new to running. When I say ‘new to running’ I mean before I got roped in to running some silly race 2 years ago I couldn’t remember the last time I’d run anywhere.

“You’ll love it,” they said. “You’ll never look back,” they protested. “Your beer gut will be gone in weeks,” they cried. So armed with a shiny new pair of trainers, an excessive amount of watches and monitors and other random stuff strapped to my body and a belief that I’d be beer gut free within a few weeks I set off into the murky dawn of my first run.

Now I love running. It’s a pastime I never thought I’d enjoy. But for me, the achievement of moving from heavy smoker/drinker/lounger, to marathon runner/stumbler is one of the crowning achievements of my life.

Running is, for me at least, more a triumph of mind over inertia. Those cold mornings when I have to drag myself out of bed, those evenings when I have to leave the pub early because I’ve got a run in the morning.

But running has taught me more than just how to strap an ipod to my arm. There are four critical things that I feel running has taught me about leadership

The importance of ‘flow’

Flow occurs when someone is so engrossed in their work that a state of contentment and absolute absorption exists. In running it occurs when your mind enters ‘the zone.’

Compare these two scenarios:
You’re running, your mind drifts happily between topics, you are only superficially aware of what your legs are doing. It seems like only a few minutes have passed. You check and you realise 2km have gone past.

You’re running, you focus on every step, on every breath. Your legs hurt and you focus on how far you have left to go. It seems like ages have passed. You check and you realise only about 200metres have gone past.

The difference is flow. When your mind is absorbed, when you have created the right environment for your mind to enter a state of flow you run further, faster and better. Time flies by.

Transfer this concept to leadership. If you can engineer an environment where your team work within a state of flow imagine how productive they could be.

Get a mentor

Waking up at 6am isn’t easy for me. I’m not one of these people who has achieved more by 7am than most people achieve in a week. So getting up to run when it’s dark and cold isn’t natural for me. No matter how much I love running I will always find it difficult to get out of the house.

But I have a running mentor. A running mentor is someone who has invested time in helping me to build my confidence, someone who has put together plans and diets for me. More importantly someone who enquires after my adherence to those plans and diets.

Most importantly, my running mentor is someone who I don’t want to disappoint. He is someone to whom I feel accountable. This accountability makes me do crazy stuff like run in the dark.

I have someone there who can answer my inane questions – yes it is normal for nipples to bleed as if I’ve been stabbed, yes I should spend ridiculous amounts of money on a watch that does pretty much everything Dulph Lungren’s equiptment did in Rocky 4, no I shouldn’t believe every theory I read on the internet.

The added motivation and knowledge I get from having a running mentor is something that makes running easier, more enjoyable and more likely to happen.

Transfer this to leadership. Getting a mentor allows you to benefit from past experience (whatever the corporate equivalent of bleeding nipples is) and from having someone to whom you are accountable.

Major change comes from little changes

In running as in business, major changes (exponential top line growth, not dying from heart disease before the age of 45 etc) can come from minor and seemingly inconsequential changes (making your product available in red as well as blue, going to bed early enough to get up in the morning for a run etc).

Breaking down big outcomes into minor changes and then focussing on making these minor changes permanent is how big outcomes can be engineered.

This is true in both running and leadership.

Have a goal

You need to know where you’re going. Obviously you need to know where you’re running, but you also need to have an end goal. Maybe it’s to run a marathon, maybe its to lose a certain amount of weight. But having an end goal allows you to visualise why it is you get out of bed each morning.

Having the ability to create a compelling and inspiring end goal for your team is a core trait of a good leader.

Me? I want to cure Cystic Fibrosis. Probably not personally, I’m not entirely sure my Degree in English Literature qualifies me for such a lofty task, but I want to help fund far smarter, better people in their efforts to do so.  So I run big races for sponsorship.  Having a lofty end goal helps when things get tough.


Running has taught me a few invaluable things about leadership. Turns out they were right about me loving it. I’m not so sure about the beer gut, but then Rome wasn’t built in a day.