5 ways running can make you a better leader
by victoria crawford
I am sure you have heard that running is good for you – and there is a plethora of evidence to show that running makes you healthier, happier and even smarter.
But if that’s not enough to get you off the sofa, then know this: playing sports can make you a better leader. In fact, research surveying 400 women executives for the EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW showed that the majority of C-suite women played sport at university level, and concluded that a sport background can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential.
During my time as a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum, I have reflected on this and what I have learned personally about leadership from my experiences as a competitive runner.
Here are my top takeaways.
1.Know your goal and want it
I really like running, and I don’t often think of it as a chore. But when I do, it is less often because of some self-imposed obligation to follow a training schedule, and more often because my diary is blank. With no race to aim for, I begin to feel like a hamster running round and round my wheel but going nowhere. Without a purpose, it is difficult to have much motivation and drive. Yes, it’s nice to go outside and get some exercise, but for what?
On the other hand, with an upcoming race to focus on, I actually quite enjoy a hard training session. Not that I particularly like the jelly legs, metal taste in your mouth, can’t-catch-your-breath feeling – but there is a strong sense of satisfaction in setting out a goal and taking concrete steps to get there.
Even better is when you’re in it with your teammates. Long runs in the rain together, track sessions trying to keep up with one another, and evenings spent chatting over plans or sharing war stories, all contribute to a shared focus, and a desire to do better with and for (or even against…) your friends. And what is up for grabs when you work together is much greater than anything you can do by yourself: when my team Serpentine won the London cross-country league or the UK marathon team championships, I wouldn’t have got very far solo.
Winning a cross-country league isn’t a goal that everyone aspires to, but whatever you’re aiming for, having a clear vision of what you want to achieve gives you and your team a sense of purpose that will help you get through even the most soul-destroying of necessary tasks.
2.If you’re always at your peak, you’re not at your peak
When runners train, we are preparing to run at our fastest on race day, not to run as fast as we can every day. This means working systematically on the individual components of running: lots of slow running, steadily building up strength and endurance, with the occasional day of short, fast bursts to improve our speed. Going out as fast as possible every run would leave us shattered – or worse, broken – and unlikely to be able to switch it up a gear when the starter gun fires. And herein lies a key trick of racing – learning how to peak when it really matters, and making sure we don’t blow up getting there.
This graph shows how a sports player might alter the level of their training over a training cycle in order to ensure they perform at peak level during the main competition
This is the same in other contexts. Whether it is a first meeting with a potential partner, a deadline for an important report, a deal, an event, an interview or a presentation, we need to be the best we can be on the big day. That means taking the time to prepare, to rest up and, importantly, to relax and celebrate our victories after a big push. It might mean some slow days but it also means avoiding a perpetuity of mediocrity: ready to rock and roll – stronger than ever – the next time the pressure’s on.
3. It is always a game of psychology
It is pretty obvious that if you want to run at your best possible, you need to be physically fit. However, often overlooked is the need to also be mentally prepared. Even at my amateur level, I can think of races when I have failed to do as well as I could have, and psychology is often a key culprit (along with unexpected hills, and blizzards, and someone faster than me turning up). In a situation where the results are so obvious – you get a time and a position – it becomes very clear that top performances require focus.
Elite athletes are cottoning on to this and are increasingly employing psychologists as part of their support teams. From talking through how to react to high-pressure scenarios, visualizing what they are going to do in competition, to figuring out how they can best use stress and anxiety to their advantage, the mental is increasingly becoming part of their preparation.
So being on top of your game means being focused and present, anticipating what you need to do, and being prepared for the unexpected – as well as having the slide deck in order. A good leader needs to make sure they and the people they are collaborating with are in that place.
4. Be in it for the long run
From months of training, to turning down that last drink for an early night, to the feeling of exhaustion as you push to the finish line, it is fair to say that distance running is not about immediate rewards. There is however a “theory of fun” that explains why we keep coming back for more. It says that fun can be classified in three ways:
- Fun when you are doing it (example: a party or concert)
- Not fun when you are doing it but fun afterwards (example: a 10km race)
- Not fun when you are doing it and not fun afterwards, but makes a very good story (example: a near-death experience in the mountains).
Now, spending weekends racing around a muddy field has certainly left me with a greater appreciation of Type 2 fun. Sure, some of it might be unpleasant, but the fun lasts for longer and the rewards are greater in the end.
There is a lesson here for leaders: in a world where the challenges we face – from climate change, to gender inequality, to the protracted crises affecting so many people –are complex, long-term and without quick fixes, this ability to look to the long term, whatever it feels like right now, is critical.
5. Invest in communities
Even as one of the most individual of sports, running doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The person standing on the podium may have the medal round their neck, but there are teammates and coaches, volunteers and physios, supporters and friends and family, who all played a role in getting them there. To be as successful as possible means building your network to include the right support that works for you, and drawing on it when you need it – whether that is words of encouragement and advice from a coach or some friendly competition from your teammates.
But leadership goes beyond drawing on your contacts, to actively contributing to building that community – and the running community is full of examples of people giving back in support of those with similar aims, from marshals, to coaches, to race organizers, to cheerers.
For leaders to make a true impact in the world, whatever their aims, they need to be able to build that community and take their allies with them.