I ran a 10k Monday. I’m not bragging—it wasn’t a special event or a race, just a slow 6.2 miles because I wanted to. (And because of the whole “PTing for fitness in the Army” thing.) I’ll be the first to tell you I’m no PT stud, so it wasn’t a particularly inspiring 10k, but I felt good afterward, and I started to think about some of the ways running is like leadership.
And while I’m not the first to draw the comparison (see this, this, this, this, and this), I argue that there is much about leadership you can learn from running. Some of my thoughts are a stretch, but some might make sense to you. Strap on your PT belt and have a read:
If you stop running, your running ability literally atrophies. I don’t think leadership is exactly like that necessarily, but I do think that leading folks is a dynamic, constantly active process that requires your attention and engagement. Failure to stay engaged and lead actively and attentively will instead atrophy your relationship with your team. They run on while you stop to tie your shoelaces.
Fun and The Suck
Sometimes there are days when your run feels like the best part of your day. I wanted to write that, during those runs, “the sun is shining,” but some of the funnest runs I’ve had were in rain or snow or the dark.
Then there are days where your body actively rebels against your running efforts. Maybe there’s an unexpected obstacle preventing you from taking the route you wanted. Perhaps nature calls, and you’re miles away from the nearest toilet. Maybe now you have to run without one of your socks.
This idea is at the very heart of many “running-and-leadership” comparisons. There are always good days and bad days. When you consider many leadership roles (all of them in the Army), your time in that position is limited, which lends itself to the ubiquitous “it’s a marathon” advice. There are going to be days when you kick ass, and there are going to be those when the day kicks your ass.
But you go out and run anyway because, at the end of your time, you’ll remember the fun runs fondly. More importantly, you’ll even start to smile about the runs that were the suck.
Swallow the Gnat
Admittedly, I stole this from a post on reddit, but it resonates with me. I often run through a marsh area near me house. That means wildlife (egrets, minks, skunks (more on that later), and even the occasional coyote). It also means bugs—swarms of gnats that you can only see right before you run into them. Occasionally you’ll run through with your mouth open. Spit and hack all you want, you might as well just swallow the gnat. It’ll save you the breath, spare you the break in your cadence, and, as the saying goes, it’s free protein.
I’m sure there are plenty of ways this can be spun into a leadership lesson, but I like to interpret it this way: don’t let the small inconveniences throw you off. Is pitching a fit about a minor tasking from higher worth the disruption to your battle rhythm? Is the gnat worth a nuclear option? Probably not (although there may be a time or two when you have to strategically launch a figurative nuke).
Just swallow the gnat and get back to business.
Leading a Run
One of my favorite things to do when I was a commander was to grab a few junior soldiers at PT and take them on a long run around post. They never saw it coming, and I had a blast. Some of them probably hated me for it as they were pushed to run farther than they ever had before, but most of them at a minimum had a story to tell about when their goofy commander took them on a 7 mile run past the old bunkers in the woods. For me, it was a chance to share my enjoyment of running, show the soldiers some things they hadn’t seen before, and get in some team building.
You don’t need to abstract here for a leadership lesson. Leading a run is directly applicable to leadership, especially in the military. But if you’re looking for some sort of abstraction, I suppose you could look at how leading a run means leading by doing. It means leading by example. It means leading from the front.
Being Led (and Smoked) on a Run
There are few things more humbling than being smoked (some call it being “broke off”) at PT. I’ve been there. You get a very stark sense of where your level of fitness falls (and fails). It doesn’t feel good, but it can serve as a catalyst to get your ass out and moving. Sometimes you need that spark as a leader.
Sometimes you get OBE’d (Overcome By Events) and lose track of the important things you should be focused on like training and building your team, accomplishing the mission, or improving systems. Then along comes something or someone to let you know exactly where you stand.
If you just got broke off on a run (or failed an inspection, or dropped the ball on a task), you really have two options. You can sulk like someone pissed in your cheerios. Or you can ruck up, own the failure, and use the experience as an opportunity to take stock of yourself and improve. Leaders do the latter.
Avoid the Skunk
I mentioned coming across wildlife on my runs above, but in other locations I’ve also run across turkeys, a mountain lion kitten (I never saw mama, but I assume I narrowly escaped death that day), quail, turkeys, deer, and even skunks. Skunks are the only ones I’ve seriously worried about.
I imagine nothing can ruin your day faster than getting sprayed by a skunk first thing in the morning. So when you spot one and it abruptly spins your way, sticks its tail in the air, and hisses at you, you’d be smart to do like me and avoid it by as wide a distance as possible.
This one is a stretch, so follow me on this journey. Military culture (indeed American culture at large) is one that attributes judgment not just to realities but to perceptions as well. You’ve likely heard the phrase “perception is reality.” Even if it only looks like a leader is having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, that perception is enough to necessitate corrective action, for instance.
If you’re following me this far, here’s the next metaphorical leap: the skunk is a bad idea; it’s noxious spray and subsequent smell are perception. Wander too close to the skunk and it will leave you reeking of poor decisions and shame, even if you never got close enough to touch it.
Intentions aside, be diligent about considering the perceptions of your decisions. Good intentions followed by poor perception have tanked many careers. Avoid the skunk.
Over the last few years, I’ve discovered that running is far from the chore I once thought it. Running can be cathartic fitness. It can be both a means and an end. You can run competitively or recreationally or both. And if you choose to do so, you can even draw some lessons on life and leadership. I’m sure that’s true of many forms of fitness (I don’t even have to Google it to know there are probably plenty of comparisons for Crossfit and leadership). What lessons have you learned?
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