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8 leadership lessons from marathon runners

January 30, 2015 09:30 IST

"Running is like meditation...thoughts enter and leave and you let go off all your pent-up emotions."

"Even though marathon runners run alone, they draw inspiration and energy from fellow runners."

It's amazing to know how much running teaches you about entrepreneurship, sportsmanship and quality of life...

There's a lot you can learn from marathon runners

'If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon,' said three-time gold medal Olympics winner Emil Zatopek.

An entrepreneur, in many ways, is like a marathon runner.

By choosing entrepreneurship, you have opted for a different life.

You know you have a long distance to run, but it is important that you realise it is not speed but stamina and endurance that will carry you through.

The most important fact to remember is you are in this alone. It is your own race.

For model, actor and long-distance runner Milind Soman, running is like meditation.

"There is no confusion in your head, thoughts enter and leave and you let go of all your pent-up emotions.

"You reach a spiritual level because you feel the freedom to fully control your body.

"It becomes so effortless that you breathe smoothly without panting.

"You are lifted from a regular state of being to a state much more relaxing. It is a great place to be."

Marathon runners are not born. They are made. They train to become marathon runners.

Though you have chosen to be an entrepreneur and are passionate about your idea, it is the disciple and endurance that will take you through to the end.

Here are eight leadership lessons from marathon runners that an entrepreneur can learn to remain energised:

1. Run, run, run; do, do, do

It is mid-week already, and you are losing steam. That’s where the importance of daily discipline plays an important role.

Says Rajiv Jayaraman, Founder-CEO of KNOLSKAPE, a Singapore and Bangalore based software company that focuses on management training, assessment and research, “Very early on, my fitness trainer instilled in me the importance of being disciplined about managing time and maintaining a routine that works.

"He also emphasised the value of meticulously following the agreed plan.

"Needless to say, in a start-up as well, where timelines are extremely short and the team members don multiple hats, it is imperative that the start-up leader reinforces the importance of time management and sticking to the plan.

"Without financial and operational discipline, the start-up can very quickly burn its resources and find itself in a tight spot.”

Spend the best part of your day doing whatever it is your start-up claims to solve.

Do it diligently and every day.

If you are focused on customer acquisition even making cold calls is better than just sitting tight in the hope that customers will find you. Nurture consistency.

2. Set small goals

We are always reminded of taking one step at a time.

Setting small goals will eventually lead to the larger goal.

Jared Fogle, the Subway spokesperson, told MensFitness.com that he “eased into distance running by setting smaller goals -- a 5k, a 10k, a half-marathon -- and he planned long runs, usually on Mondays, to ‘get it out of the way’, adding two more short runs throughout the rest of the week.”

Whether you aim to be the next Flipkart or Google or any of your dream brands, first consolidate your base, and draw up small goals every quarter that will eventually add up to your larger goal.

3. Let go, sometimes

You cannot control everything. Things like bad weather and injury are not in a runner’s hand.

You have to take what comes your way and hope for the best.

Entrepreneurs are often guilty of pushing themselves to work, even when they are not being productive.

At such times, do something else that interests you.

How do you decide when is the time to persevere and when is the time to stop?

Says Vivek Rao of Cisco, “I have learnt from one of my mentors that when it comes to business, one should follow it passionately but not get involved emotionally in it. I completely believe in it. When you get emotional about your business, you become stubborn and want it to work out at any cost which may not necessarily happen in real life.”

4. Work with people who energize you

Negative energy spreads fast. Avoid being around people who pull you down.

Even though, marathon runners run alone, they draw inspiration and energy from fellow runners.

Sandeep Singhal, regarded as one of the sharpest VCs with a knack for constantly funding and building successful product ventures and co-founder of Nexus Venture Partners, says, “Companies make mistakes, lots of moves don’t work out. But then you have to buckle down and make the difficult decisions of letting go of people who are not working out.

"You really have to understand what motivates your employees.

"Engineers, for example, are looking to solve hard, challenging problems.

"They’re looking at global issues, they want to create wealth and maybe become famous!

"Understanding what drives individuals and positioning your message accordingly is the key to ‘selling’ to your employees as well."

5. Avoid burnout

Professional runners never dismiss the threat of a burnout. Often injury or burnout leads to frustration.

Be aware that burnout is inevitable if you ignore the signs of stress.

Try getting eight hours of sleep a day.

Eat nutritious foods.

Exercise regularly and immerse yourself in non-work activities, too.

This will help strengthen your entrepreneurial fitness and ensure you remain energized.

Says fitness expert Simran Vatsa, "Even if your job requires you to be up at odd times, try to sleep and wake up at the same times every day. A sleep deprived person can be cranky and disagreeable, and that’s probably bad for PR! When you’re tired, all your troubles feel magnified, and this can lead to greater stress."

6. Run your own race

When you run a marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners.

Entrepreneurs always have an eye on the competition and are always measuring themselves against other entrepreneurs.

We read about how they do things differently, how they manage to be successful and how we should be applying all of those things to our own lives.

Gillian Davis, a London-based leadership coach focused on start-ups, and co-author of First-Time Leader: Foundational Tools for Inspiring and Enabling Your New Team, says, "Building strategic partnerships is a great way for small businesses to grow. Being clear on your strengths and recognizing your gaps will help you fill the holes and be ahead of your competition."

7. Leave room for failure

We all fail at some point, so if the race didn’t go well, runners take some time to get over it, and move on to their next race.

Subrata Mitra from Accel Partners made a very similar remark in a recent chat with YourStory.

He said, "One conversation that needs to become mainstream in the start-up world is the talk about failure.

"All of us should learn to take failure as a positive experience; it is probably the next best thing (to success) that will ever happen to us in our entrepreneurial journey.

"You will be surprised by the level of maturity you will gain. Don’t drag on failure, fail quickly and move on.”

Recalling his own failure, Mitra says, "My first start-up was hit by 9/11 smack in the middle of fund-raising, and we simply could not do much to turn the tide. Many people who supported me (as investors/advisors/team members) then, still work with me now; neither they nor I were deterred."

8. Don’t forget to have fun

If runners did not enjoy running, the whole purpose of why they run would be pointless.

In the end, do not forget why you took the plunge to become an entrepreneur.

Have fun doing what you do to make the world a better place.

As Novelist Haruki Murakami also a marathon runner, put it, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."

Photo: Reuben NV/Rediff.com

Dipti Nair