Forty-five minutes after completing the Boston Marathon I climbed back into my car to drive the five hours home to New Jersey. Many fellow runners stayed in Boston that night to recover, but I needed to be at work the next day to speak to the inductees of the National Residence Hall Honorary.
On the drive to Boston, I thought about the focus of those remarks. I had settled on sharing a few specific characteristics of effective leadership that I wanted these emergent leaders to reflect on. But now on the drive home, my reflections kept bringing me back to my experience of training for and competing in this marathon. I decided to incorporate those reflections into my talk. So the next day I didn’t speak to them in my role as VP. Instead, I started the talk by removing my jacket, tie, and shirt (with very raised eyebrows from the professional Res Life Staff) to reveal my Boston Marathon T-shirt and bib number. Instead, I was speaking to them as a marathon runner.
The three characteristics I shared with the students were integrity, resilience, and faith, and, as you will see, they are interconnected and complement one another.
The most common synonym for integrity is honesty—a person of integrity tells the truth. But I learned several years ago that integrity is also about commitment, where a person’s word (what you say you will do) creates reality. People of integrity ARE their word. When they say they will do something, they do it. My sister used to refer to her husband as The Mayor of Idle Threats, because he would threaten his daughters with a consequence if they continued misbehaving, but they all knew the aforementioned consequence probably wouldn’t happen. In that aspect of his parenting, the Mayor’s word did not create reality. We have all experienced people in leadership positions who do the same thing—they say things, but we know that what they committed to might not happen. Effective leaders strive to live their commitments.
This wasn’t the first time I ran this race. In 2012, I ran the Boston Marathon in near 90 degree heat (race report). It was the most miserable running experience of my life and my slowest ever marathon. I dragged myself across the finish line and in my haze turned back to the wide yellow finish line painted on the road and said (in much more vulgar language), “I will be back.” I made a commitment on the spot that I would requalify for this race and return to do better.
Here’s my Facebook status update from the morning of this year’s race:
“I am in Hopkinton [location of the starting line] getting ready for the Boston Marathon. I know this is special because of what happened last year, but it is special to me for a different reason. I ran it 2 years ago when it reached 90 degrees. It was the worst running experience of my life. At the end I swore I would requalify and return. I requalified at the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton. Then I trained thru the most brutal winter in my memory and dealt with nagging injuries. Several times it appeared that I wouldn’t make it. So, I don’t know what will happen in the next 26.2 miles. It doesn’t matter. I’ve already won.”
I truly felt that way because I had fulfilled my commitment to return.
So the challenge for leaders is to ensure that they follow through on their commitments; that they are their word, and that their word creates reality for themselves and the people they lead.
Resilience is often compared to persistence. Certainly, persistence is part of resilience, but being emotionally positive and pushing onward in the face of challenge or stress is only a part of resilience. Actually, resilience is the ability to become powerful, healthy, or successful again AFTER something bad happens. So, resilience isn’t maintaining a positive attitude it is REGAINING a positive attitude after failing at something or experiencing being knocked down. It is the ability to bounce back. Resilience is the characteristic that helps leaders keep their commitments in the face of setbacks.
All leaders, including effective leaders, have initiatives fail, experience budget cuts, manage unit reductions, or deal with crises and emergencies that hurt them, their organization, and/or their people. The resilient leaders are able to experience the failure or loss, gather themselves, and move forward powerfully. They are affected by what happens, but also have the capability to rebound quickly. Researchers have discovered a wonderful thing about resilience—it is not a predisposition or an inherent characteristic. It is a choice, and it can be learned.
Several times during my winter training I suffered injuries that threatened to prevent me from getting to the starting line. However, the most debilitating circumstance was the E. Murray Todd Half Marathon I ran six weeks before Boston. This was to be the race to determine my pace for Boston. Unfortunately, halfway through the race my mechanics completely broke down and I ran the slowest race of my life. This is not an exaggeration. As it turned out the femur heads on both my legs “jammed” in my hips for some reason causing my hip flexors to overwork and break down, rendering me a jogger for the last half of the race. I was devastated. Not only had I experienced a significant “loss,” but also I was confused as to how it had occurred. At home that night, I seriously questioned my ability to follow through on my commitment to compete at Boston. I experienced despair.
Two days later (and after a visit to my chiropractor/kinesiologist) I made the conscious choice to put that experience behind me and rededicate myself to the final phase of my training. It didn’t just happen; I chose to move forward.
Effective leaders experience failure and loss, but consciously choose to move forward with a positive stance.
Finally, there is faith. Faith is at the root of that choice to move forward in the face of despair. Faith fuels our follow-through on difficult commitments. When I was a child, I believed in God because my parents, and the priests and nuns at my church told me there was a God. Today, I have faith that there is a God. That means I believe there is a God, but while fully recognizing there may not be a God. In other words, faith is choosing to believe in the face of doubt.
In my experience, new and inexperienced leaders and managers do things because they know they will work—they have an unquestioned belief. They do things sometimes because they have seen leaders they respect do them and these things have worked. It may be how to run a meeting, how to supervise a staff, or how to go about getting a group to accept a change in practice. Sometimes these things work, and sometimes they don’t. When something doesn’t work that they had an unquestioned belief would work, they are shocked and confused. Sometimes it shakes their confidence in their abilities.
Experienced leaders and managers inhabit a world filled with doubt and uncertainty, where they must make decisions and take action that they KNOW may or may not work. Instead of being shocked or confused when something doesn’t work, they are curious and then analyze what happened. They learn from their failures, which allows them to be more resilient. In this way, student affairs is a faith-based profession.
As I indicated in my Facebook status on the morning of the marathon, it was very unclear to me what the next 26.2 miles would bring. There was a very real chance I would suffer another mechanical breakdown. I had no recent race experience to help me gauge the pace I should run at. I had doubts—grave doubts. I chose to believe in the face of those doubts. I started. I finished. I ran faster than the qualifying time for my age. I didn’t run as fast as I had hoped, but it didn’t matter. I crossed that bright yellow finish line just as I said I would two years before.
Effective leaders follow through on their commitments, bounce back from failure, and act powerfully in the face of doubt.
How have you seen the characteristics play out in your own leadership experience?
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