Six Important Lessons I Learned About Running That Apply to Leadership

After a lifetime of running marathons, Errol Yudelman has learned some valuable lessons that apply to leadership, too. Here are six.

When I ran my first marathon while studying at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, I would never have imagined that 38 years later I would still be running marathons.

Now, on April 17, I plan to complete my 100th race – almost 8,000 miles from my hometown, at the 2017 Boston Marathon. That day will also mark my 17th Boston Marathon since I moved here in 1987.

After a lifetime of running marathons and ultramarathons, I can honestly say I have learned some valuable lessons that apply to leadership, too.

I’ll highlight six of the most important lessons below and how they apply to leadership:

#1 – Focus

I learned early on that successful runners focus on establishing – and meeting – their goals.

Typical goals include: “This is my first marathon and I want to finish, regardless of my time” or “I would like to achieve my personal record.” To meet those goals, they set plans for achieving them such as running a certain amount of miles per week or running at a specific mile-per-hour pace for an entire run.

The same basic principles apply to leadership. Good leaders set goals for themselves and their organizations, along with a game plan for achieving their goals. Then they measure the results to ensure those goals were met.  

During my career as a runner and as a leader at multiple companies, I’ve learned you can’t achieve your desired outcomes without the discipline to stay focused on choosing the right path and executing seamlessly on your plan.

#2 – Strategy

Aside from focus, it’s also really important for runners to have a race-day strategy that’s based on training data such as total mileage, average pace, and races completed during the training period.  

I typically create my strategy by looking through my training journal along with the course map and expected weather conditions to determine the pace I will run. For example, if there are hills or if it’s going to be warm, I know I have to take it slower in the beginning of the race.

The same is true for leaders. Without a solid strategy and “playbook” for executing their plan, achieving success can feel like an ultramarathon.

#3 – Flexibility

Knowing when to be flexible is critical to runners and leaders alike.

I have found that training for a marathon requires a 20-week plan, but I know that I need to be flexible around my plan.  Living in Boston and training through the winter can be a challenge, especially in a year like in 2015 – when we had more than 110 inches of snow. I typically like to run 6 or 7 days a week, but during that harsh winter, I had to cut back on my runs during the week. Instead, I ran more over the weekend because I had a longer window of time to train.

In a similar way, leaders need to keep an open mind and adjust the game plan if necessary. It is key to react to external changes, such as the competition, customer feedback and new technologies.  

When I was leading the development of a new investment product for a financial services company, we had a well-thought-out plan for the product’s design and features. However, after piloting it with select customers, we realized that certain aspects of the product would act as barriers to adoption.  

We had to pivot and make adjustments to ensure the product would meet the requirements and needs of our customers. That flexibility is what laid the groundwork for our product’s success.

#4 – Passion

It goes without saying that to be able to run a marathon or many marathons, you need to be passionate about what you are doing. Leadership requires the same type of passion – at least if you want to be good at it.

My coach used to tell me that training is the hard part, and you need to have that desire to put in the countless miles that will pay off during the race – the fun part. 

Steve Jobs captured this from a leadership perspective when he stated, “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”

# 5 – Confidence

Whether embarking on a marathon, ultramarathon, or a new business project, you need to believe in yourself 110%. Because if you don’t, nobody else will.  

When I hit the notorious wall around mile 20, I need to believe in my training and trust that my body will take me to the finish line. It is hard, but I find that the more confident I am, the more I succeed.

Successful leaders are not just confident, they also instill confidence and ‘fellowship’ by having a clear vision that they believe in – one they confident about achieving.

# 6 – Persistence

Long distance running requires endurance, speed and tenacity, but most of all, it requires persistence. So does leadership.

When running, it’s tempting to stop or give up, especially on a hot summer day in the middle of a 20-mile run. I certainly have been in situations when that seemed to be the more prudent option.

However, it is really important in these situations to have the determination to finish what you started.

Great leaders realize that success builds over time, and they must persist no matter what. That’s what it takes to be a leader: willingness to go beyond the point where others will stop.

One More Lesson

While I am more lenient with my training than I was earlier in my running career, these core principles haven’t wavered.

Without them, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have been able to as a runner. Having run 55,000 miles in my lifetime, I can say I have been around the world two and a half times. And it’s those same principles I turn to almost daily to succeed in my professional life – whether it’s leading teams or changes at the organizations I work with.

To be truly successful in either role, there’s still one more lesson to learn: Leadership and marathon running are not simple tasks – there are always challenges to overcome.

This is captured well in one of my favorite quotes from the great leader Nelson Mandela, who said, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”