Who will you run backward for?
New York City Marathon Leadership Lessons
Every year the New York City Marathon runs right by my Manhattan apartment. I love to go cheer them on and witness this outpouring of commitment, mind over matter and the sheer will it takes to finish. Huge congratulations to anyone who ran this year! I also ran. Okay, not in the marathon. I joined a runner’s club.
I found this club after weeks of deliberation about joining one (and stupidly waiting ’til it got cold) and promised myself I would finally show up and run with them on this Monday morning. I liked the symbolism that it was the day after the marathon. I am a casual runner, 51, and I have never played a team sport or joined a sports club. But I had been wanting to improve my running skills and saw groups of runners in the park who always seemed like they were having more fun and running further than I was! So after some research, I emailed a guy named Don (not his real name) in charge of a club that met near enough that I can jog there in under 30 minutes. Don wrote back right away, “sure, please join us!” and assured me the runners had all different skill levels. He also put me on their Whatsapp group chat where I saw energetic and supportive texts making plans to meet, encouraging each other and being playful. I was sure I would love this!
So today was my “marathon day.” I woke up at 5:00 so I would have plenty of time to get ready, I meditated, I did my affirmations, and got myself out the door at 6:05 before the sun was up. Confident in my spandex, wool hat, pink gloves and black Nikes I set out to meet the club. The light was just coming up and the park was still and beautiful with inspiring banners from the marathon still lining the roads. I felt amazing. I arrived at the Boathouse – the designated start point – to meet the group right on time at 6:30. There was one guy there, Phil (not his real name), a trim, clean cut investment banker looking type. He greeted me warmly and introduced himself, explaining that Don (the organizer) asked him to lead this run and it would be smaller than usual since so many of the runners had completed the marathon the day before. Three other members arrived within minutes, a couple and a woman in red running pants, all in their late 30s and early 40s. Phil introduced me as a new member. Everyone was very friendly and we chatted about the marathon and who had seen what from where. Then we started running. Phil told us he had a text from Don asking us to run the lower loop going south and to pick him up along the way in the upper 90s on the West side. Off we went!
For the first few minutes I was elated. It was a crisp fall day and the leaves were showing off their reds and yellows, the group was friendly and I really liked this feeling of running as part of a “pack”. Social scientists often remind us that we are pack animals at heart. I felt I was getting a glimpse of why so many of my friends (and my sons) sacrifice so many mornings in bed and late nights out to be part of teams and have this feeling.
Then we turned a corner, and the group pulled way ahead. I suddenly noticed for the first time that the couple who arrived after me had legs that ended about where my rib cage starts, and the pace they were keeping quickly left me a good city block behind them. And then it was two.
I tried to catch up, but I was unable to shorten the distance and as we rounded corners, the red, blue and black clad figures that made up the club got harder to spot. I started feeling winded. And then bad about myself. Why couldn’t I keep up? What was wrong with me? And why did I put myself in this humiliating position in the first place? But then I remembered that Don had said “we have plenty of beginners!” when I told him I was was more of a casual runner. And I thought back to a leadership retreat I attended some ten years ago, where we all went hiking together and learned that the best leader was not the one who got to the top of the craggy climb first but the one who looked after everyone on the hike, especially the people at the back. The best leaders circled back often to to see who needed help, made encouraging remarks and didn’t need to show they could sprint to the best view up top. They were more focused on making sure everyone in the group felt included, safe and looked after.
While lost in thought about that hike (and also with my legs starting to say, “yeah, that’s enough!”) I looked up ahead and saw the most wonderful thing! The group was now jogging backward all together, just long enough for me to catch up! I felt a huge sense of relief and my shame vanished. We are pack animals at heart, and being excluded from the pack is one of the things we dread most. This was a runner’s club after all, of course they had protocol for making sure a new person didn’t feel left in the dust. I sped up a little to meet them, feeling a new burst of energy.
There was just one problem.
It wasn’t them. It turns out my mind was playing with me. I so wanted them to be running backward looking for me that I conjured up that image! They were far ahead and way out my sight by now.
I left the park at the next exit and made my way home without seeing them again.
Leaders Circle Back
The thing about being the boss is it feels great to be able to run at the head of the pack. Having your own company is as good as any endorphin high (well, most of the time)! But that is not what true leadership is about. Anyone can start a company. But becoming a leader takes being intentional and learning how to circle back so your team members feel safe and included. Good leaders create successful businesses. Bad leaders churn through staff, feel frustrated and complain they “can’t find good people.” Simon Sinek has a powerful Ted Talk on this you can watch, riffing off his book by same name, Why Leaders Eat Last.
“When people feel safe and protected by the leaders in their organization, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.”
– Simon Sinek
Leadership is a choice, Sinek says. Leaders are people who make sure their teams eat first (Sinek tells the story in his Ted talk of the top military commander who makes sure his troops are fed before he eats, even though he outranks them).
I am curious what Don (the club organizer) would have done had he been leading this run? Would the mirage have been a reality if he had been leading? Would he have suggested they wait for me, or would he have left the others a minute and circled back?
What kind of leader do you want to be? The kind who circles back to make sure your new assistant or chief of operations or sales person has what she needs? What kind of leader to you want to follow? The circle back one or the come in first one? Neither is the “right” way to be but know that if you don’t circle back, your team members will feel like they want to just leave the park.
So the next time you are doing the equivalent of rolling your eyes because someone on your team “just doesn’t get it” or needs you to explain how something works again, please remember to run backward. You will give them the gift of feeling truly led, and they will not be looking for the first exit. Instead they will be looking for how they can improve on their personal best to run with you!