“I ran the Boston Marathon.”
I don’t often boast, but there is something about completing this particular marathon that makes me quicker to share this accomplishment than others. I don’t think the accomplishment itself is what makes me so proud, but rather the means required to achieve it.
Running the Boston Marathon took vision, effort, perseverance, and commitment. It took good days and bad days. It took a lot of self-talk. It took support from others.
Leading with vision is a lot like training for a marathon.
We’ve all heard the cliché “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” If you’ve never run a marathon, however, what does that mean? That you’ll die when you get to the finish line, like Pheidippides*? No, leading with a marathon mindset means knowing where you are, where you want to go, having a plan to get there, and having the conviction to stick with that plan.
Where are you going?
Running a marathon requires the investment of time, planned effort, and lifestyle adjustments. Commitment goes to waste without race goals that drive you to a training plan to achieve them. Know where you want to go before deciding how to get there. In a similar way, leaders must provide a vison of the desired future state and a pathway toward achieving it. Without vision, our efforts will be aimless and confusing. Start with the end in mind and develop a plan to get there. What is our desired future state, and what are the activities we need to execute to get us there? Critical to defining your vision is creating measurable objectives.
Where are you now?
Knowing where you are is just as important as knowing where you are going. I am guilty of sometimes taking an overly optimistic view of a situation, which can be detrimental to my team. A candid and humble assessment of our team will give us the clearest path from where we are to where we’re going. If we miscalculate A, getting to B becomes more difficult. We should assess where we actually are, versus where we think we should be.
I ran the Boston Marathon in 2015. If I assume in 2024 that I am still as fit as I was then, I am headed for serious disappointment. Going too fast in pursuit of our goals will lead to injury or burnout. A humble assessment of our current environment — which facilitates realistic goals and time horizons — enables us to chart the clearest roadmap to achieve our vision.
Put in today’s work today.
Chances are, the goals you set for your team cannot be accomplished in one single day; if they are, you’ll need to go back to step one and redefine the vision. Your vision will provide your team with the purpose it needs to invest in each day’s activities. Long term vision will drive short term effort. Without vision, you run the risk of just going through the motions each day.
An ambitious vision will drive us towards effective daily activities. Believing in where we are going will provide motivation to put in the work today — the hard work, the mundane work, the easy work. Conversely, failing to put in today’s work will prevent us from ever reaching where we want to go.
Not every training run needs to be twenty miles at a fast pace. In fact, two-thirds of marathon training runs are at an easy, conversational pace. The consistent, daily effort toward the race goal is as important as any other component of the plan. The better we can orient our daily habits and activities towards our desired state, the more effective we’ll be.
Progress isn’t always linear.
Unfortunately, the work we put into achieving goals rarely produces a linear path towards success. There is not always a discernible and direct relationship between effort and improvement, and there will be days where questioning our work will be easy. We ask, “Why are we doing this? We worked really hard yesterday, so why are we not noticeably better than yesterday?”
Balance the execution of day-to-day activities with periodic and holistic checks on your progress. This assessment will reveal real progress over time, whereas relying on intuitive daily assessments often tells a misleading story. Charting a series of metrics over longer periods of time reveals the full picture. A slower pace on a single run could be the result of several factors, and therefore dismissed; conversely, slower runs for a week or a month may require a more thorough reassessment.
Successful teams conduct candid self-assessments by means of measurable objectives. And even when we have clear objectives, we should still ask hard questions: Are our daily activities leading us towards the desired state in the way we intended? Has our environment changed? Did we make poor assumptions? Does our execution of the plan reflect our values? Does everyone understand where we are going, why, and how to get there?
Bold vision can feel daunting; thus, leaders of courage are mandatory. These leaders promote honest reflection, inspire ambitious objectives, and motivate successful execution. I didn’t wake up one morning ready to run the Boston Marathon. Achieving this feat took saying my goal out loud, knowing the requirements to make my vision a reality, and putting people around me to help me stay focused every day.
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*According to Greek tradition, Pheidippides, a Greek soldier and courier, ran roughly forty kilometers to announce the Greek victory over Persia at the battle of Marathon. This event inspired the modern marathon race.