Leadership lessons from finishing 100 marathons on all seven continents

My management and executive career have closely paralleled my long-distance running accomplishments. I have enjoyed the challenges, strategies, methodologies, human interactions, risks, and rewards of both activities. My passion and profession both started in the early 1980s and have gone through many changes and growth. I had to learn from my mistakes and successes, while adapting to the technological changes.

My running career started in sneakers, cotton shorts, and t-shirts. The training routes were carefully planned to include full-service gas stations with water fountains. Salt tablets and water were my mainstays in the summer; cotton sweat pants were the norm in the winter months.

Today, we wear microfiber running clothes that whisk away perspiration. My Spira running shoes have coils in the soles, which reduce the stress on my joints. We carry camel packs and water belts to tote fluids, electrolyte fluids have replaced salt tablets, and we wear synthetic and special wind-resistant clothes in the winter.

Early in my career, project management methodologies included JAD (joint application design), RAD (rapid application design), OMG (Oh my goodness), organized confusion, luck, and the “A-Team” (i.e., “It will somehow come together in the end.”) technique. More structured methodologies were later developed and sold, which supposedly were supposed to improve the probability of success.

In both situations, although the tools and techniques had changed, humans were responsible for successfully using them to achieve their goals. Over time, my passions and professions were fused and this allowed me to successfully manage multi-million dollar, international projects and endure some of the world’s toughest marathons. The projects were on time or ahead of schedule, at or under budget, and according to specifications. The marathons included

  • The 3,600-step Great Wall Marathon
  • Kenya’s Lewa SafriCom Marathon
  • The Antarctica Marathon

When both projects and marathons are performed flawlessly, they appear to be effortless and without any heroic actions. Project heroes are made when they “saved the day” by correcting a major project mistake, which threatens the project’s success. If there are no threatening mistakes, there are no heroes; thus, the objective is a project with no heroes.

This “effortless” appearance makes outsiders grossly underestimate the training and experience required to being successful. Risk is greatly reduced through repetition in training and under different environmental conditions. We trained for marathons through torrential downpours, snow, ice, wind, and heat. My “board room” consisted of hills, high-altitude locations, glaciers, and dirt trails. And my “coworkers” ranged from fellow runners to free-roaming pit bulls, cheetahs, seals, and rhinos. This type of endurance training and racing put managing a challenging business situation, in an air-conditioned office, without fear of physical harm, into perspective.

Watching a distance runner or a well-run project is about as exciting as watching paint dry. My non-running friends have noted that my running form looks the same at the beginning and ending of a marathon and it looks deceptively easy. In fact, my non-running friends can run with me for a couple of miles; however, this pace becomes uncomfortable for them after about four or five miles.

Like distance running, it’s hard for an observer (i.e., a non-manager) to appreciate an accomplishment, such as managing a project, until he or she wears the leader’s “Spiras.” In fact, he or she may even downplay the leadership and project’s success. The observer merely sees the final results and not the training or experience that minimizes the risks, the risks, which is like never being an athlete, who never took to the field, but complains about the team.

Preparing for and completing a marathon is the perfect backdrop for examining the problems and challenges faced by today’s business leaders. Although all certified marathons are the same distance, the dangers, terrain, altitude, and weather offer unique and varying challenges; however, you quickly learn that hills build character.

The leader should weigh the advantages of a short-term sprint verses finishing in the long run. You must become a marathoner who successfully uses his or her knowledge to mentally and physically push out of his or her comfort zones toward new limits. You don’t worry about things you can’t control, such as the weather or project constraints; you can only control yourself, while working to influence and motivate other people.

Successful endurance athletes and business leaders exhibit the same characteristics to thrive; they manage change by taking calculated risks and gradually expanding their comfort zones. This is how a miler becomes a marathoner and an individual contributor becomes a successful leader. They must incorporate change, manage risk, and motivate people to go up hills and face challenges even at a time when they feel like quitting. All of this must be achieved in a stressful, uncontrollable business environment.

Achieving success, whether you’re in a marathon race or in the corporate “rat race,” requires focusing on four components

  • Goal setting
  • Motivation
  • Planning
  • Execution

These components make up the achievement equation (AE).

AE = G * M * P * E

The components are binary, which is to say, they are either one or zero. Furthermore, because the equation is multiplicative, if you fail to follow through on any of the components, its value is zero and thus, you achieve nothing. An individual, who doesn’t set goals, may go through life aimlessly; a person who isn’t motivated, lacks the ambition to rise above his or her current situation and fears change. Leaders must be able to motivate their staff to move beyond their comfort zone and embrace change.

A highly motivated, goal-oriented individual, who doesn’t know how to plan, is like a dog chasing its tail—a lot of dust kicked up but nothing is achieved. This leads to a waste of resources and project cost overruns. This mentality may lead to running injuries or poor performances. Over training may result in overuse injuries, whereas under training may cause an early exit from the race.

There are many similarities between marathons, projects, life styles, and programs. For example, a project has a defined time period just as a marathon has a defined distance. Likewise, a program is continuous throughout a company’s life, just as the decision to maintain a healthy lifestyle until death. The program may consist of many projects to keep it viable for the long run, and a distance runner may focus on marathon goals to stay focused on his or her overall health.

For example, a “green” corporate program may consist of many “green” projects, which may include switching to energy-efficient bulbs. Likewise, my running “projects” have helped me to maintain my healthy life style, and over the years, these “projects” have included finishing

  • 100 miles every month
  • At least two marathons annually
  • 50 marathons before turning 50
  • 50 marathons in Texas
  • A marathon a month while I was 50 (each one had to be in a different state or country)
  • A marathon on all seven continents.

In project management, you very quickly learn that you don’t have control over your resources. Someone may set the deadline and assign the resources and you must play the cards that are dealt you. The only person you can change or control is you. (Of course, you may try to influence the decision makers regarding these factors.)

Marathoners have no control over the race day weather or the course layout. We quickly learn that complaining about the weather won’t change it. Our only recourse is to add or remove clothes, adjust our fluid and food intake, and change our pace. However, we can try to influence the race director to change the course; in both instances, you come to the realization, that you may only control yourself.

When you’re training for and running a marathon, you must constantly monitor yourself and your surroundings. Failure to be observant could lead to your death or those of your fellow runners. I’ve dealt with the extreme cold of the Antarctica Marathon to the blistering Walk of Fame Marathon in Lubbock, Texas, where the heat index was over 100. I had to prepare for the races and decide at which point to quit or continue. This required constant monitoring and managing the few precious resources (i.e., water, electrolytes, and food), while pacing myself under stress.

These are a few of the many examples associated with my passion and profession.

References

Reed, A. R. (1989). The SMART degree: A young professional’s guide to reality. Dallas, TX: Reed, CPA PC.

Reed, A. R. (2007). The achievement equation: Your formula for success. Dallas, TX: Reed, CPA PC.

Reed, A. R. (2008). Running shoes are cheaper than insulin: Marathon adventures on all seven continents. Dallas, TX: Reed, CPA PC.

Reed, A. R. (2009). Finding the I in TEAM: Better team building through individual building. Dallas, TX: Reed, CPA PC.

Reed, A. R. (2010). Leadership lessons from finishing over 100 marathons on all seven continents. Dallas, TX: Reed, CPA PC.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010, Anthony R. Reed, CPA, PC
Published as a part of the 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC

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