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Billy Byrne

Billy Byrne

5th Oct 2017

Billy Byrne is an IMI associate on the High Impact Leadership programme.

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Six Leadership Lessons I Learned From Running A Marathon

At the end of October, many thousands of runners will wind their way around Dublin city and suburbs as they complete the 42.2 kilometres of the Dublin City Marathon. For those who are running their first marathon one thing is guaranteed; they will be changed by the experience, not just on marathon day but during the long months of training that they will have put in. They will have learned new things about themselves, not least of which, that they are capable of pushing themselves physically and mentally to new limits once they put their minds to it.

(Photo source)

I ran my first Dublin Marathon in 2013. While I learned a lot about myself from running marathons, I also learned some lessons that translate into my work with business leaders. Here are my top six lessons that I believe are applicable to anyone in a leadership role.

  1. A big goal provides direction and purpose. Big goals are needed in order to provide direction and purpose. In this respect, a big goal acts as a compass. It helps provide an answer to question “is what I’m doing moving me towards or away from my overall goal?” A marathon is a great example as it is a very specific and measurable goal; the distance and date won’t change. A big goal also provides meaning and purpose. It’s something to work towards, little by little, step by step. There’s a big difference between saying, “I’m running” and “I’m training for a marathon”. Leaders also need to have big goals in order to provide direction for others. Without these, there is a danger of falling into an activity trap, being very busy but ultimately not achieving anything.
  1. Small goals are what get things done. Real motivation requires on-going feedback and intermediate goals. A marathon date that is six months away doesn’t provide sufficient motivation to get out of bed at 6am to run on a wet Sunday morning. Marathon training plans have weekly goals and other milestones along the way. Similarly, with long-term objectives, it’s important to have intermediate goals along the way. There’s little point in just setting a performance goal at the beginning of the year and then expecting miracles. There must be a sense of achievement and progress along the way. Intermediate goals also provide feedback on how you are doing. If you are leading the project then it’s your responsibility to identify these in order to motivate your team.
  1. Fail early and learn early. My second ever marathon was Paris 2014. I expected to do well and was hoping to build on the Dublin Marathon experience. Of course, it didn’t work out like that at all – I made a number of fundamental mistakes on the day and finished well outside my target time. Nevertheless, the lessons I learned I have put to use in every marathon since then and these have served me well. As a leader, it’s important to acknowledge that there will be setbacks, particularly in the early stages of projects. The first question you ask must be “what can we learn from this?” This is far more likely to drive performance than embarking on a blame game. Lessons learned early on in a project will help you to avoid bigger problems later on.
  1. Feedback is oxygen. Runners typically do some training alone. However, those who are striving for improved performance usually have a training partner who pushes them to do better. By pushing each other, both achieve greater levels of performance. This is important for leaders too. While leaders need to be independent and resilient, having peer support is vital. Having a peer who is willing to give and receive honest feedback and provide challenge is of enormous benefit in terms of improving one’s own performance. It is like oxygen, fuelling the performance of both leaders.
  1. Be uncomfortable. My coach always pushes me to a point where I am just outside my comfort zone but not so far outside that I become discouraged. Working at the edge drives your performance and continually increases the size of your comfort zone. The inverse is also true: spending too much time in your comfort zone causes it to shrink and negatively impacts performance. Just like a runner who loses fitness if they are not pushing their limits, likewise, a leader who is not pushing themselves and their team outside their comfort zone is likely to be ill-prepared for the next big challenge.
  1. Recovery and self-renewal is as important as activity. This is something that most marathon runners take seriously. They don’t train flat out every day and have rest days and recovery built into their training schedule. Unfortunately, in business, this is generally not the case. Recovery and renewal are often ignored, despite the fact that the research shows overwhelmingly that working long hours on a continuous basis reduces overall effectiveness. If a marathon runner had as little recovery time as many managers do they would most probably end up injured and miss the race.  For managers, the “injury” is more likely to be to their mental well being more than their physical well being. Recovery is not one-dimensional and should include physical and mental recovery.

Running a marathon isn’t on everyone’s bucket list. However, if you are in a leadership role, then you are (metaphorically) training for a marathon every day you turn up for work.


Billy Byrne is an IMI associate on the High Impact Leadership programme. He is an executive coach, leadership development specialist and an associate at KinchLyons, Organisational Psychologists. Billy holds masters degrees in organisational behaviour and coaching. He is a chartered fellow of CIPD and Council Member of EMCC. To date he has completed sixteen marathons.

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