10 Ways that Leaders Can Use a Marathon Mindset

| November 25, 2020
Finishing Smile at the SF Nike Women't Half Marathon 2013

Finishing smiles at the SF Nike Women’s Half Marathon 2013

In my humble opinion, there are few analogous experiences to leadership development more appropriate than the training grounds of endurance sports. In many of the incredible organizations with which I’ve had the pleasure of working, top decision makers practice some endurance activity. Sometimes it’s only to blow off steam. Sometimes it’s about gaining a mental competitive edge.

I believe that the mindset of such a leader-athlete ~ whether a (semi)professional competitor or a weekend warrior ~ is very different than that of someone who has never prepared to participate in an endurance sport. Their starting point is different. Their assumptions are different. The way winning is handled is different.

Here are ten important ways that leader-athletes think differently than others:

  • 10.    You can’t do it alone. When you are at a grueling point on your course, you really, really need people who hand you water and provide some respite. You need to have friends who cheer or challenge you. You are better for coaches who question where you’ve set your bar (although in the moment they may not be your favorite person). It’s important to have competitors poised to snatch victory out if your hands. A great leader has to make many tough decisions on her/his own, yet they should never feel alone.  If you find that every long run is a solo event, it’s time to stop and rethink what you’re doing.
  • 9.    There is a fine line between victory and defeat. History books are filled with stories of legendary people who kept standing up when they were knocked down. J.K Rowling. Abraham Lincoln. Theodor Seuss Giesel. Oprah Winfrey. Bill Gates. Walt Disney. It’s less about planning to be successful and more about taking action ~ again and again ~ that will make you successful. It’s one last hill repeat when it hurts. It’s stepping up to the mike at a conference when you know there are critics in your audience. It’s analyzing what you may have missed in your market launch and trying it a different way. It’s not quitting just because it’s an option.

Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success.
They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of
the game one foot from a winning touchdown.
- Ross Perot


  • 8.    You are what you eat. Athletes understand the importance of what you feed your body. You can’t run with the big dogs for very long if your diet is garbage. Likewise, what are you feeding your mind? Have you placed it on a steady diet of pessimists’ spewing, gory details of the latest catastrophe, or drivel about which celeb is cheating in their non-committal lives? What newsfeeds fill your inbox? What magazines do you pick up at the airport news shop? Whose bio are you reading… and is it inspirational or desperational? Honestly, how long can you expect torun on a less-than-nourishing diet of the mind?
  • 7.    Success doesn’t always involve recognition. Sometimes your race ends with a finisher’s medal. Sometimes not. You’ve got to be able to find satisfaction (or perhaps solace) from within, regardless of whether someone else hangs something around your neck or hands you a blue box. That takes persistence, determination and a very strong will. Use up everything you have inside, borrow what you need from others, and believe in yourself.
  • 6.    There is a difference between your long runs and your speed work. Not all workouts will yield the same results. If you are going to compete on hills you need hill work. (Duh?) If your race involves an open water swim, you’d better have some of those under your belt. Likewise, simply checking off a “leadership training” box on your HR development form is not necessarily the same as excellent preparation. This is especially true if the experience pulled you out of your day-to-day happenings to give you “stuff” that bears no resemblance to what you need to compete. You want to be sure that you actively pursue the experiences you need to build the competencies that will help you show up strongest at the starting gun.
  • 5.    Not every worthy competitor will look like what you expect. Smaller. Bigger. Older. Younger. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been bested by someone who looked nothing like what I had imagined an “athlete” to look like. They were stronger. They were more focused. They were better trained (maybe). Don’t dismiss too soon or decide not to try your very best because you feel invulnerable.  You may end up sadly surprised.
  • 4.    It’s a hill. Get over it. Not everything is predictable or within your power to control. Let it go. Look clearly at the challenges between where you are and where you want to be, then start. I know that sometimes when a hill feels overwhelming, I shift my focus on my next step. Or the next mailbox. Or maybe the next cross street. It doesn’t make the hill less real, but it does help me focus on the next most immediate action (literally). That mindset also works in leadership ~ Take what you know the next step to be. Then the next. And keep going.

The difference between a successful person and others is not
a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge,
but rather a lack of will.
- Vince Lombardi


  • 3.    There are people with more expertise in something you need to hurdle. Hire them. No such thing as a super hero or a wonder woman. If you need help, and it’s not in your strengths profile, hire the help you need. Surround yourself with people who will push you, expand your capabilities, look at things in a new way, offer a unique set of experiences to enrich your thinking about what’s possible. You certainly won’t benefit by hanging around “mini mes.” Find someone who knows something you don’t and bring them into your circle.
  • 2.    You have to recommit every single day. Sports or leadership success is not a forever proposition. Your journey doesn’t end on the day you get the title or toe the starting line. When you train for a challenging sports event you realize that the race is won (or lost) months before, when you skipped the interval training session. Or ran in 10 degree weather. Or added that extra lap. As one songwriter states, “Every finish line is the beginning of a new race.” (“I’m into You” written by Dwayne Carter, sung by Jennifer Lopez)
  • 1.    You quit looking for “The Right Answer.” In leadership as in marathon training, there are no quick fixes, no silver bullet solutions. No once-and-done certification exists that proves you’ve permanently mastered your craft. There is always another peak to shoot for and there is no single-best way to get you there.  You have to learn to relish the journey itself. Seriously, isn’t that the point?

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed
is more important than any one thing.
- Abraham Lincoln


Training for an endurance sport is not a prerequisite to successful leadership. However, if you take on a marathon training mindset, you will most certainly be prepared for most of the challenges and victories of leadership success.


Category: Development, featured, Leader

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