Leadership Lessons From A Marathon: Musings From My Long-Distance Runs

Rohit Tripathi

In addition to my passion for building innovative cloud products and services, I have an interest in running, especially running marathons. I run for enjoyment and have no plans to quit my day job, however I have discovered a few key lessons and takeaways during my runs that not only apply to training and running marathons but also to managing teams and businesses.

Lesson 1: It does not matter how you get the idea, it is important that you execute

I signed up for my first half marathon out of the blue because I wanted to support the charity efforts of an MBA classmate. Others, who are more athletically inclined, start with a 5K and take a more methodical training approach to accomplish this goal. I never pondered how I got the idea to run a half marathon, rather I focused on running.

Similarly, in a professional context it is often more important to execute on an idea or a project rather than spending energy on who had the idea, what order the team members’ names appear on a document, or developing the framing project manifesto. Successful teams focus on getting things done to meet their goal, rather than spending time on aesthetics that can often distract and add little value. As leaders and managers, it is important that we realize a good idea is a good idea and we execute, no matter where the idea started—be it the CEO or an entry-level employee.

Lesson 2: Small steps get the job done

It is a daunting task to run 42 km (42.165 km to be precise) at one go, no matter how many times you have done it before. Even today, I never approach my marathons as a 42 km run; instead I start with a plan to run the first 5K, then the 10K, then the 20K, and before you know it, I reach the finish line. When the end goal is ambitious and hard to reach, successful leaders break the journey into small blocks and think about these incremental achievements. This does not mean that they take their eye off the prize nor get lost in detailed project plans, rather that they recognize milestones that lead up to the destination.

Running marathons requires me to have a regular run schedule with varying distances and periods of rest. The same thing applies to leading teams in a professional setting; the team needs a regular schedule of engagements, work sessions, and measuring progress along the way. The Big Bang happened billions of years ago, and that is the only significant event in which everything was done in milliseconds; for everything else, taking small, daily steps is the only thing that works.

Lesson 3: It feels good to cheer others along the way

I am extremely competitive and have a strong desire to win, however, cheering and clapping for others while running a marathon gives me a much needed surge of energy in those long, tiring moments. In encouraging others to run and finish, I find strength to carry me forward. This is an eye opener, especially in professional contexts where it’s not uncommon for teams in the same organization, group, or location to pull each other down by trying to “one-up” each other, even though they could all be successful if they cheered for one another.

Helping other teams or groups to be successful does not take away the achievements of your own team or organization. Successful companies realize this and play together rather than getting lost in internal petty politics. Stand up, cheer, and support others as they work towards a daunting goal or deadline, and you will see increased productivity on your own teams.

Lesson 4: Envision getting to the finish line

Every marathoner will tell you that there comes a time in each race where they hit a block where it seems impossible to run any more. At such points, it is purely mind over matter; getting the mental strength to plow through wins the race. I’ve found it helps me to visualize getting to the finish line, hanging my finisher’s medal on the wall, or calling a loved one to announce I’ve finished. Experience has taught us that, when project teams hit a dead end where it seems nothing can be done, good leaders step up and paint the picture of victory. This re-energizes the team and gets them back on track.

It is important to realize that there are different shades of what victory feels like; it can be as simple as a dinner with the team at the best restaurant in town or as big as anticipating the great societal impact that a project can deliver. Successful leaders paint with all the shades of victory, balancing the more immediate, material pleasures, like a nice dinner, with the more noble societal impacts.

Lesson 5: Once you get to the finish line, repeat

When I completed my first half-marathon, I celebrated, nursed the sore muscles, and soon got back to doing it again … and then again and again. I do not have a definite goal of doing a set number of runs in a year, but I do follow the simple rinse-repeat cycle. The glory of the most recent run remains with me only for a short time, and then it is time to do it once more. This is no different from the numerous examples we see in corporate life, where successful leaders do not bask and boast on past accomplishments. Past accomplishments are, by definition, in the past, the clock is reset, and you get back on drill once more. Each project or effort is a new challenge, and as the financial analysts love to say, past performance is not an indicator of future success. Successful leaders never take themselves or their success for granted.

For more on the best ways to manage people today, see Everything You Know About Leadership Is Wrong.

About Rohit Tripathi

Rohit Tripathi General Manager, Head of Products, SAP Digital Interconnect, and brings with him over 20 years of experience in software and business operations. In his current role, Rohit focuses on bringing to market value-added products and solutions that help SAP Digital Interconnect customers get more engaged, secure, and gather actionable insights in the Digital World. Previously, Rohit held various leadership positions at SAP in the areas of technology and products. Prior to joining SAP, Rohit was with The Boston Consulting Group where he advised senior executives of Fortune 500 companies on business strategy and operations. Rohit also serves on the North American Board of Directors for Mobile Marketers Association.