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3 Ways Leadership Is Like Training for a Marathon

by Carly Barry

3 ways leadership is like a marathon

Leadership is a marathon and not sprint.
Leadership is a journey.

These are two commonly heard phrases when it comes to leadership and, in fact, you could remove the word “leadership” above and insert any number of business initiatives: “building a market for a product,” “developing a new strategy,” “undergoing transformation.” Albeit a bit cliché, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is a fantastic metaphor for any long-term journey that’s bound to be full of ups and downs.

Leadership is just one example of a journey that can span a career. Even if you’re eager to get a leadership job (lookin’ at you Millennials and Gen Xers!) and end up getting one early in your career, what leadership means over the course of your career will likely evolve and include many highs and lows.

For others, leadership may be a long-term career aspiration, where another related saying, “It’s not about how fast you go, but how far you go,” applies. This also resonates with a subset of marathoners who run not so much to get a certain finishing time, but to merely cross the finish line of the endurance event itself.

For these people, slow and steady wins the race, but even those who run marathons regularly and always hope for improved times know that going out too fast can destroy your race. You can’t use up too much energy at the onset and expect to sustain that pace throughout the race and still be able to finish at that rate (In fact, taking this approach may cause you not to be able to finish at all.).

Every leader begins their leadership career with a first leadership job (DDI has published an excellent book, Your First Leadership Job, to help new leaders make the transition), just as every marathoner has to sign up for his or her first race. Let’s look at how the various stages of training and running a marathon compare to starting your first frontline leadership job.

1. Training: Preparing for your first leadership job

To say that a marathon is merely a long-distance event is an understatement. I ran track and cross country in high school, and the longest distance I ever raced then was around three miles, later expanding in my running career to half marathons, covering 13.1 miles. I considered the 26.2 miles involved in the full marathon as no joke, and I knew that it would require a lot of training and planning to be able to finish a distance I had never run before.

Many months prior to race day, I did extensive reading online, taking my time to find the best possible training and nutrition plan based on my ability level and the time I knew I had to dedicate to training. Even with this preparation in my back pocket, I still felt nervous to attempt something I’d never done before.

Similarly, when it comes to taking on your first leadership job, unless you have been labeled “high potential” in your organization and were groomed with leadership development and training before taking on the position, you might feel like a fish out of water trying to prepare for a new career promising a lot of unknowns.

And, unfortunately, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Candidates for first-level manager positions often get the job because they were high-performing individual contributors with a high level of technical knowledge in their field, but this doesn’t always mean they’re equipped with the leadership skills necessary to adequately manage a team.

According to DDI’s Frontline Leader Project , there are some fields of study that do prepare people better than others for leadership. People with humanities backgrounds showed the strongest performance in leadership skills focused on people and interactions. Conversely, people in STEM fields often struggle more to gain the key leadership skills they need to succeed at higher organizational levels. But organizations shouldn’t bank on their first-time leaders already having the leadership skills they need to be successful.

Many first-time marathoners feel anxious before their race, regularly asking themselves, “Am I prepared for this?” Our research shows that there are similar levels of anxiety among those transitioning to their first leadership job. Runners surely have the edge in terms of the availability of information, at least having access to training plans online, but first-time leaders often don’t get any formal training until they’re already four years into their first leadership job.

2. Running the race: Your first few months on the job

The highs and lows of running a marathon are almost as exhausting to think about as the miles are to run. At one point during my first marathon, I was feeling great, smiling, and chatting with the people running around me, then “hitting the wall” the next mile, running so slowly that someone out for a leisurely stroll could surely have passed me. And this up and down, feeling good one minute, bad the next, replayed repeatedly during my 26.2 miles.

Your first leadership job is likely to look the same. One week you may hear feedback from your manager and those on your team that your guidance is paying off—the team is gelling, and stuff is getting done on time. The next month you may have dropped the ball in dealing with some team conflicts that eventually caused a major project due date to slip, or you poorly delegated tasks and failed to keep yourself and your team accountable.

3. Recovery: Bouncing back from your first flub on the job

Running a marathon was tough! The recovery process was even tougher. My muscles were so sore that doing stairs or any sort of activity that involved leg-bending was very difficult for about a week. Sometimes it takes even longer to recover (especially if you hadn’t adequately trained), but seasoned runners usually need just a few days before their bodies are back to normal.

Similarly, the recovery period for running a marathon is like recovering from your first flub on the job. It will be one of many throughout your career—whether your team missed its first big deadline under your watch, a one-on-one meeting with a member of your team about his recent handling of a situation went horribly wrong, or you’ve been ignoring team conflicts and they’ve finally bubbled over, resulting in several of your team members refusing to work together.

Just as you won’t forget how sore you probably felt after that first big race, the sting of your first big blunder as a leader is also sure to stick with you. But in both situations, you’re likely to do what needs to be done to prevent making the same mistakes again. From a running perspective, you might incorporate more training, stretching, or a different nutrition strategy when training for your next race to prevent sore muscles, but in the case of making mistakes on the job, you can likely trace many of those mistakes back to the use of poor interaction strategies, which are behaviors that can be fine-tuned and reversed.

To close, here’s a personal running story that features my dear, sweet husband (which is written mostly without sarcasm but instead in the tone of, “I wish you would have listened to me.”).

Newly married, I told my husband I was going to sign up to run my first marathon. I had done a dozen half marathons previously and was ready for the challenge of a full marathon. Being the supportive husband he was at the time (and still very much is), he signed up to run, as well. He chose the half marathon distance because this was his first foray into distance running, and his running career consisted of just a handful of 5ks up until that point. We were excited! We would make the trip to Philadelphia together to complete our respective races.

We signed up at least six months before to the date, leaving ample time for both of us to train. I did my due diligence in developing my training planning, setting Google Calendar reminders for each of my training runs, and researching diet and nutrition plans. I started my training four months prior to race day, building up my weekly mileage slowly and steadily, eventually ending my training feeling confident I could complete the race.

My husband took a different approach. I will preface this by pointing out that he is and always has been an active guy, regularly working out and participating in rec volleyball and basketball leagues. It was three months prior to the race, and I asked him how his training was going. He told me he’d planned on starting his training in a month.

Then it was two months prior to the race, and I asked him, “How is your training going?” The response was, “I haven’t gotten to it yet.” Two weeks prior to the race, as I started to think about tapering my training, he looked at me and said, “Think if I can run 10 miles, I’ll be able to do 13.1 on race day?” I shook my head and told him that wasn’t the ideal way to train, but that he really had nothing to lose at that point. He smiled and said, “Okay then, I’ll do that.” He ran 10 miles on a treadmill two Sundays before the race and went on to successfully finish his first half marathon a few weeks later.

However, he was unable to walk correctly and do stairs for nearly two weeks after the race.

I mention this story not to reinforce the idea that it is possible to run a long distance race without the appropriate training, but to emphasize that in both long distance running, leadership, and many other career-related or personal journeys that involve long-term goals, it’s always best to plan, practice, and be patient. Take your journey one day at a time, one step at a time (or you can almost certainly expect to have a case of sore muscles).

Explore DDI’s new research on the challenges that come with becoming a frontline leader.

Carly Barry is a writer for DDI’s Marketing Communications team. When she’s not working on articles, Carly can be found chasing—her two young sons and the finish line for several local 5ks and half marathons.

Posted: 16 Apr, 2019,
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