In my nine years as a leadership consultant and trainer at Galika I have encountered many different organizational leadership styles: I have met introverts and extroverts, alpha and beta types, team players and lone rangers, messy creatives and structured logicals, control freaks and relaxed geeks, and the list goes on and on. For sure I have also observed different degrees of leadership effectiveness but, at least in my experience, I have not been able to correlate any of those characteristics, single or combined, with the degree of effectiveness at achieving results.

One thing I have been able to identify, for my personal and professional purposes, is who of those people possess the characteristic we know as leadership. Many authors coincide that leadership is like charisma: it is hard to define, but it is easy to identify. And from now on I would like the reader to bear in mind that those I will be referring to during the rest of this paper are the people I have met in my professional path who I consider to be outstanding leaders.

As I said, I have not been able to find the right recipe for creating the secret sauce of effective leadership and, as a matter of fact, I have stopped trying. There are thousands of resources on leadership out there and the more I learn the more I believe that leadership, as a subject, is like the universe: it is constantly expanding, incorporating new things all the time that redefine our understanding of it. But one thing that I have continued doing is trying to find commonalities across leaders, and there is one common thing that has caught my attention recently: many of the people I’ve met, as well as many well-known leaders, practice endurance sports.

According to Wikipedia, endurance sports are a subset of sports in which the goal is prolonged athletic output over an extended distance or for an extended period of time. Running marathons is considered an endurance sport given the distance one has to cover to complete the race; 42.2 kilometers or 26.2 miles. That is not an easy thing to do for any person at a normal walking pace, let alone at a consistent aerobic intensity. And here’s what I have found interesting: 7 business leaders and managers I’ve personally met have completed at least one marathon. It is also well known that many leaders of big international firms are marathon runners: the CEO’s of Kellogg, Burger King, Walt Disney, Nike, Siemens, PepsiCo, among many others.

Before I go any further, I would like to eat a piece of humble pie and thus I want to clarify that this is not another paper based on a spurious regression: my intention is not to argue that running marathons, or regularly practicing any other endurance sports, will help you to become a better leader; nor I want to suggest that being a leader will allow you enough time, and money, to train for and participate in a long distance event. Instead I just want to share the thoughts that appeared in my mind after finding this coincidence and that, being a long-distance triathlete myself, I feel can give us some interesting lessons about leadership in the organizational world. If there is or there is not a connection between practicing endurance sports and effective leadership I leave to the reader.

Organizations as long term projects

The origin of my analogy between organizations and endurance sports events is the fact that organizations are long term projects. No organization, at least none that I know of, was ever created with the intention of being around for weeks or months. Organizations are normally envisioned, planned, invested in, and finally created over a considerable amount of time. All this process is expected to yield benefits in the mid to long term. Similarly, a person training for a marathon first envisions herself and designs a training plan, invests time and resources in preparation, and finally takes part in an event months or even years later. Additionally, a person that decides to start running marathons usually continues with this lifestyle. In other words, the decision of becoming an endurance athlete or taking on an important organizational responsibility is one that impacts the person in the long term.

Endurance sports as individual sports

There is one additional fact where I find a big relationship between endurance sports and leadership: their individual nature. Although a leader must be a team player, it is also true that leaders need a lot of time on their own to think, design and make decisions. It is a very introspective work that then needs to be operationalized through the limbs of the organization. Endurance sports are very similar: many of them are individual rather than team events, and the outcomes depend almost entirely on the preparation and mental state of the athlete; making it also a very introspective exercise.

Having said all that, I have found that there are five necessary conditions that all endurance athletes must possess in order to succeed, and I believe that these conditions are also necessary, or at least helpful, in organizational settings for the same purpose. I proceed now to describe them in detail.

1: Emotional intelligence

The two extremes of track field events at the Olympic Games are the 100 meter sprint and the marathon. To win in the 100 meter sprint athletes need explosivity for a few seconds. To win the marathon athletes need endurance over several hours. I am not saying that the 100 meter sprint is an easy event. Quite the opposite. Being good at it requires training, a lot of it. But the nature and requirements of these two events are very different. In business I compare leading an organization to running a marathon, instead of a 100 meter sprint, because organizations require leadership that produces sustained results as opposed to quick wins. And there is a fact: there are more people that can run 100 meters than people that can run 42 kilometers.

How does this relate to emotional intelligence? Well, in my experience I have encountered numerous managers that display explosive behavior to exert authority: they scream, yell, bang, curse and scold. But honestly I have never encountered an organization where this type of behavior creates sustained positive results. On the contrary; people feel humiliated, sad, diminished and looking forward to a better opportunity elsewhere. The organizational climate suffers and businesses can not prosper when their people feel like this. The best leaders, even when they feel like exploding, they take the time to interiorize their emotions, think over things, and then act. They know that the long-term result is more important than their immediate frustration and the relief they might feel by shouting.

2: Strategic thinking

Contrary to short distance events, a long distance athlete must know how to act strategically rather than impulsively. There are so many factors, internal and external, that need careful attention during, for example, the Giro de Italia in order to have a positive result. Internal factors include whether or not the cyclist should race at full speed from the beginning and therefore take the risk of premature burnout, or deciding what is the appropriate level of hydration during the course. External factors might be deciding to keep up with an attacking adversary during an uphill segment, or being more conservative during rainy weather to avoid falling.

A good organizational leader must also know how to strategize with all the variables, internal and external, that are present in the life of an organization. Is the company able to sustain an aggressive price war during hard economic times? What message do we send if we reduce our personnel to achieve profitability? Do we want to be the first in a new market or should we let others test the waters first? In sports athletes must learn, over time, to master and know their bodies. Leaders must also take the time to know their organizations and how the variables around them interact with each other to create the reality they are in. Only in so doing can they steer their organizations to better results or, in other words, can they create feasible and achievable strategic plans.

3: Self Discipline

To many it might seem like golf is not a strenuous sport. But being able to play a full golf tournament and at a high level requires a lot of preparation. As I already mentioned, endurance athletes begin their preparation months even years in advance, and that preparation must be constant. Similarly a manager or business owner must also be persistent in their efforts because in business, as in sports, only constant and directed efforts yield positive results. But this is easier said than done. Any golfer knows that there are times in which landing on the rough for the hundredth time starts being frustrating, just as running an organization and only breaking even for consecutive years might feel disappointing.

But there is something different in those who really want to succeed. These people find the motivation in themselves to keep trying even after things have gone bad for some time. They wrestle with their agendas, obligations and other commitments to find a way to keep trying; until they achieve their goals. Business is about discipline and having the will to do some things over and over again, even when they seem to yield no results in the beginning. And, according to some surveys, persistence is one of the most recognized characteristics of leadership.

4: Excellence

Many endurance sports events have time cut off times and time caps. That means that athletes must have completed certain segments of the race by specific times, otherwise they are taken out of the race, and there is also an overall time limit for completing the event. In an Ironman 70.3 event that I recently participated in, the swim cut off time was 1 hour and 10 minutes, the bike cut off time was 5 hours and 30 minutes, and the final limit for crossing the finish line was 8 hours and 30 minutes. For purely first-time triathletes or poorly prepared ones, an Ironman 70.3 event becomes a test of whether or not they can complete the event. But for those with experience or the proper preparation it becomes an issue of how fast they can do it. In other words it becomes a matter of excellence.

Even if an athlete is properly prepared, the distances in an Ironman 70.3 event are big (1.2 miles swim, 56 miles bike, and 13.1 miles run), and the amount of effort required is enormous. For this reason, just completing the event is a big achievement in its own sense. But completing the first two thirds of the event at a decent pace leaves the athlete with enough time that even walking the last segment would suffice to be a finisher and thus being an achiever. And believe me: during the whole event, and specially in the last segment, the mind will begin shouting the body to stop the effort, to go back to the comfort zone, and this will be supported by the emotional fact that crossing the line is still possible. But exerting that extra effort, even when it seems that it is not indispensable, is what separates the managers from the leaders. Great leaders strive for excellence when others are satisfied with compliance.

5: Honesty

Completing a marathon is a big proof of honesty. A person that is not well prepared for running that distance cannot fake it, as simple as that. Also, trying to do it without the proper training might put the person at a big risk of suffering an injury or even dying. So, even if the desire is so big, if the person is not in the conditions to do it it is better not to do it. And sometimes it is hard to accept it, but it is necessary.

In organizations, a leader must also be honest and transparent at all times. The best leaders I’ve met are not those that resemble, or try to resemble, the image of the superman-leader; those that look like they can do it all. On the contrary, the best leaders are those that are honest about their strengths and weaknesses, about their emotions and feelings, and about their thoughts and plans. Being honest and transparent is the best way to generate empathy, and also to learn from others. Just as many marathon runners cry or crumble when they cross the line, admitting that it was hard to do that, a leader must be able to show humanity. We do not empathize with those that seem a species apart from us, but with those that behave exactly like us. Interestingly during long distance events there is an amazing feeling of support among all the athletes during the races. Instead of sensing fierce competition a more warm feeling of comradery is all around.

Forget the relationship; doing sports is good for everybody

As I already mentioned, I do not know if those marathon running leaders that I've met are great leaders because they run marathons, or they run marathons because they are great leaders. What I started understanding almost 5 years ago when I began training for triathlons is that the mental approaches I use for completing long events and dealing with everyday situations of running an organization are amazingly similar. It is my personal opinion that, if somebody has the opportunity to test their resilience or discipline for a sports event, the opportunities found there will also shed light for their professional lives. That is my perfect definition of experiential learning.

In any case, I have been a fan of doing sports most of my life. I really enjoy the physical challenges and I can say that this has brought me many positive benefits. So even if it is not for business purposes I highly recommend an active life: it helps the mind, body and spirit.


  1. Pandya, Mukul; and Robbie Shell. Lasting Leadership. What you can learn from the top 25 business people of our times. 2004. Wharton School Publishing.
  2. Goleman, Daniel. Leadership. The power of emotional intelligence. 2011. More than Sound Publishing LCC.
  3. Kets de Vries, Manfred; Konstantin Korotov and Elizabeth Florent-Treacy. Coach and Couch. The psychology of making better leaders. 2009. INSEAD Business Press.