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Iron Sharpens Iron: Part Two, Leadership as an Endurance Sport

In my previous post, Iron Sharpens Iron – Part 1: Part One, How Leadership is Like Riding a Motorcycle, I drew comparisons of motorcycle riding to leading with confidence, resilience, and agility. My focus now turns to observations I’ve amassed over the course of months and months and months of watching and helping my husband train for and compete in an IRONMAN competition.

From this experience, I was humbled by witnessing firsthand the amount of discipline, determination, and perseverance required to accomplish such a feat.

First, allow me to provide some context around this that may be helpful to those not familiar with the distances involved in an IRONMAN Triathlon. It consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.2-mile run, Raced in that order without a break. On average, it takes an athlete 12 ½ hours (that’s non-stop) to finish an IRONMAN.

Completing an IRONMAN was a goal my husband yearned to achieve before age 60. It wasn’t until after he ran multiple marathons, completed several triathlons and even did a couple of half IRONMAN’s that he felt ready for this ultimate challenge.

After more than 8 months of rigorous training, he was ready to compete. At age 58, he crossed the finish line and heard the resounding announcement “Jeff Mariola you ARE an IRONMAN”.

It’s impossible to personally witness someone train for such a significant event without walking away with a lasting impression. For me, I often felt like the rigor involved in an IRONMAN was a direct parallel to leadership.

Here are some of the similarities I recognized between training and competing in an IRONMAN and leadership:

  • It Takes a Team
  • An IRONMAN is an independent sport by design (technically). The competition is rooted in yourself to achieve your personal best while competing against thousands of other elite athletes. But is it really a solo mission? I’d argue that it takes a team. A team that surrounds you to coach, challenge, and cheer you on to greatness.
    A leader’s strength can be judged by the strength of the team following them. Choosing your team will greatly impact your ability to reach or exceed your personal or business goals. So, choose them wisely. Find people that complement your strengths, bridge your shortcomings, constructively challenge your thoughts and ideas, and inspire you to reach new heights.

  • Sometimes You Lead – Sometimes You Follow
  • When Jeff made the decision to do an IRONMAN, he was joined by two other friends. One living in another state and the other in another country. Banding together created an immediate unity towards a common goal – to finish an IRONMAN. However, the complexity of each living in different places logistically meant they couldn’t train together in person.

    Fortunately, with technology, the distance was a mere inconvenience rather than an obstacle. In fact, it increased the competition between the three of them. If one completed a practice run at a faster pace or longer distance, it only sparked more energy and determination to top it.

    Although each of them is an executive at a large company, they knew that only one could lead them in this pursuit – only one of the three of them had completed an IRONMAN before (in fact, he had finished several of them).

    Knowing when to lead and when to follow is the truest definition of servant leadership: Having the ability to know when to put people before yourself.

  • Visualize the Finish Line
  • The challenge for most in leadership positions is keeping themselves and others in clear sight of a goal, target, or finish line when they can’t see it.

    A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others see.” – Leroy Eimes

    There are similarities of visualizing what a win looks and feels like and crossing a finish line during a race. Both are within reach but are beyond a line of sight until you close in on the goal. Painting an image of success requires several things to consider:
    1. Training
    2. – it’s impossible to compete and expect to finish an IRONMAN without training. You need to develop and tone your muscles and build endurance. I’m not merely referring to the muscles with your body but also the most significant part of it all – your brain.

      The physical workout is obvious, but the mental part is equally as necessary. The best leaders are ones that are lifelong learners – they stay curious and feed their minds with useful information.

    3. Outlook
    4. – Optimists who exhibit a positive outlook are higher achievers and naturally healthy. In fact, there’s been a significant body of work done in the last couple of decades on positive psychology. One of the leaders in this area is Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, which hypothesizes, as the title suggests, that the ability to be optimistic can be learned.

      Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism — one that grew from pessimism — is a learned optimism. The optimist’s outlook on failure can thus be summarized as, “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)”.

    5. Resources
    6. – Ensuring that you have all the resources you need is paramount to succeeding. Just as a motorcyclist carefully plans routes, is diligence by maintenance and takes inventory of all the clothing, protective eyewear, helmets etc. before taking to the road so does a highly effective leader. Resources can be as far-reaching as needed. From people to supplies to coverage and everything in between.

    7. Milestones
    8. – Setting, recognizing, rewarding and celebrating milestones along the way is essential. Without them, you will assuredly lose momentum or burn out. Good leaders understand the importance of mile markers in staying on track.

    9. Perseverance
    10. – Or as often referred to as “grit”. This is where getting real with yourself, facing your own self-talks, and moving forward even in the stresses of adversity can you maneuver hurdles, obstacles, and setbacks. Falling and getting back up, again and again, teaches you just how far you can go. In fact, perseverance is essential to developing, the last success visualization key – stamina.

    11. Stamina
    12. – It’s the ability to go the long distance. Just as an IRONMAN competitor is enduring the grueling 12 or more hours, so are leaders. It takes strength to go the distance. And it can’t be done huge spikes but rather a pace which you can sustain over a long period of time. Paying attention to what your body needs is a critical element of being able to withstand the toughest pressures. Likewise, a leader must set the pace at which the team can successfully achieve the desired goal by the determined deadline.

      Pay it Forward

      As I mentioned earlier, the one executive that took the lead in training the other two competitors was a way for him to pay it forward.

      As a leader, it isn’t enough to have achieved a goal or status without seeing how you can, in turn, share your knowledge, experiences with others.

      I can assure you, it will make you an even better [leader] for it.

    If you are lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.” – Kevin Spacey

    Competing in an IRONMAN is not only about developing three athletic skills (swimming, biking, and endurance running), but also about pushing body, mind, and spirit to their limits. Leadership, too, isn’t a single skill. It’s foresight, and intuition, and diligence. It’s iron sharpening iron.

    The more insights the better! If you have any further insight on this topic, please share in the comments below.


    Michelle Mariola is founder & director of ISH-Productions, a Chicago-based branding and marketing company whose mission is to help emerging to mid-market companies develop their marketing strategies and brand identities.

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