All Articles Leadership Management What leaders can learn from endurance athletes

What leaders can learn from endurance athletes

Growing your business is much like running a long race: You need to train properly and know when you've pushed too hard.

5 min read



Growing your business is much like running a long race: You need to train properly and know when you’ve pushed too hard.

Credit: Pixabay

Every​ ​leader​ ​wants​ ​to​ ​grow​ ​their​ ​business,​ ​but​ ​many​ ​aren’t​ ​sure​ ​how​ ​to​ ​do​ ​it. How​ ​do you​ ​deliver​ ​the​ ​performance​ ​you​ ​need​ ​short-term​ ​while​ ​transforming​ ​the​ ​business​ ​for the​ ​long-term​? ​And​ ​how​ ​do​ ​you​ ​do​ ​it​ ​in​ ​a​ ​way​ ​that​ ​doesn’t​ ​kill​ ​everybody​ ​around​ ​you?

The answer is to become a “growth leader,” a term I’ve coined to describe leaders who systematically increase their capacity for profitable growth while at the same time driving execution of the current business. Today, growth​ ​leaders​ ​are​ ​finding​ ​the​ ​answers​ ​in​ ​an​ ​unlikely​ ​place — endurance​ ​training.

Endurance​ ​athletes​ ​know​ how ​to​ ​push​ ​themselves​ ​to​ ​their​ ​max​ ​but​ ​to​ ​not​ ​overdo​ ​it​ ​or risk injury. Using​ ​restraint​ ​in​ ​a​ ​smart​ ​way​ ​helps​ ​them​ ​get​ ​it​ ​right. Growth leaders use the concept of intelligent restraint to perform today and transform their business for tomorrow. Here​ ​are​ ​four​ iIntelligent​ restraint​ ​practices​ ​successful growth​ ​leaders​ ​use​ for long-term success:

1. Find​ ​the​ ​right​ ​pace

Like​ ​every​ ​athlete​ ​has​ ​their​ ​own​ ​ideal​ ​pace​ ​for​ ​training, ​ every​ ​business​ ​has​ ​its​ ​own​ ​ideal pace​ ​for​ ​growth. ​Growth​ ​leaders​ ​know​ ​sometimes​ ​you​ ​need​ ​to​ ​build​ ​up​ ​speed​ ​to​ ​avoid getting​ ​left​ ​in​ ​the​ ​dust,​ ​and​ ​other​ ​times​ ​​you​ ​need​ ​to​ ​slow​ ​down, ​​conserve​ ​energy and​ ​prepare​ ​for​ ​the​ ​future. Each time I train for a long-distance race — whether it’s a half ironman or a 100-kilometer run in Mongolia — I rediscover the importance of pace for the race and for my training. If I train at too slow a pace, I fail to build the speed and strength I need for the race. If I train at too fast a pace, I get injured or burn out.

2. Know​ ​when​ ​you’ve​ ​hit​ ​your​ ​maximum​ ​capacity

A​ ​business​ ​is​ ​like​ ​a​ ​body​ ​with​ ​real​ ​and​ ​imagined​ ​limits. Endurance​ ​athletes​ ​push​ ​their bodies​ ​as​ ​far​ ​and​ ​as​ ​fast​ ​as​ ​they​ ​will​ ​go​ ​without​ ​injury, and sometimes this can be uncomfortable. ​Growth​ ​leaders​ ​push​ ​their business​ ​to​ ​its​ ​maximum​ ​capacity​ ​but​ ​no​ ​further​ ​until​ ​they​ ​have​ ​built​ ​the​ ​capabilities​ ​to sustain​​ ​growth​ ​without​ ​risking​ ​injury​ ​to​ ​the​ ​business​ ​and​ ​its​ ​people.

What does injury look like? In a body, sprinting all the time without building endurance muscles might produce a stress fracture or torn calf. In a business, it might be mistakes, like a safety incident, that damages the brand. Samsung, for example, was “growing” way too fast when it developed the Galaxy Note 7. It tried to cram too much functionality into the device without proper safety measures. The result was batteries catching fire, a global recall and a substantial financial loss.

3. Routines​ ​beat​ ​strengths

Ultra-athletes​ ​know​ ​that​ ​focusing​ ​on​ ​their​ ​strengths​ ​alone​ ​limits​ ​their​ ​growth​. They discipline​ ​themselves​ ​to​ ​focus​ ​on​ ​what’s​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​win. ​not​ ​just​ ​what​ ​they​ ​are​ ​good​ ​at.

Growth​ ​leaders​ ​focus​ ​on​ ​what’s​ ​really​ ​needed​ ​for​ ​the​ ​future​ ​and​ ​create​ ​new​ ​routines​ ​so they​ ​can​ ​respond​ ​to​ ​changing​ ​customer​ ​needs​ ​and​ ​competitors. Routines trigger small behaviour changes that add up to big growth changes. Ttriathletes might create a routine to make sure they sequence swimming, biking and then running. A growth leader might create a routine to spend an hour per week talking to a different customer to build outside-in thinking into the way he or she does business.

4. Exert,​ ​then​ ​recover

Growing​ ​a​ ​business​ ​is​ ​hard​ ​work​ — ​it’s​ ​a​ ​marathon,​ ​not​ ​a​ ​sprint!​ ​Growth​ ​leaders​ ​conserve their​ ​own​ ​and​ ​their​ ​people’s​ ​energy​ ​to​ ​sustain​ ​long-term​ ​growth​ ​by​ ​taking​ ​time​ ​to balance​ ​the​ ​right​ ​exertion​ ​with​ ​the​ ​right​ ​type​ ​of​ ​recovery.​ ​This​ ​way​ ​they​ ​avoid​ ​boom-splat​ ​cycles​ ​and the potential for burnout. An exhausted sales team can’t be passionate about their work; the team needs to recover after big deals in the same way muscles need rest and nourishment between hard workouts in order to perform at their best.


Alison​ ​Eyring​ ​is​ ​a​ ​global​ ​thought​ ​leader​ ​on​ ​building​ ​organizational​ ​capacity​ ​for​ ​growth and the founder​ ​and​ CEO of​​ ​Organisation​ ​Solutions​,​ Eyring is​ ​an​ ​endurance​ ​athlete​ ​and trained​ ​organizational​ ​psychologist, with​has​ ​25​ ​years​ ​of​ ​experience​ ​in​ ​large-scale organization​ ​design​ ​and​ ​change,​ ​and​ ​executive​ ​development.​ ​She​ ​works​ ​closely​ ​with global​ ​and​ ​regional​ ​executives​ ​from​ ​Fortune/FTSE​ ​500​ ​and​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​world’s​ ​most innovative​ ​high-growth​ ​companies​ ​on​ ​leadership​ ​and​ ​growth.​ ​She​ ​is​ ​also​ adjunct associate​ professor​ ​at​ ​the​ ​National​ ​University​ ​of​ ​Singapore​ ​Business​ ​School.​ ​Her​ ​book, “Pacing​ ​for​ ​Growth​:​ ​​Why​ ​Intelligent​ ​Restraint​ ​Drives​ ​Long-term​ ​Success​​,” ​​will​ ​be​ ​released in​ ​early​ ​2017. Follow her on Twitter ​​@DrAlisonEyring​​ and learn more ​about​ ​Intelligent​ ​Restraint​ ​on​ ​the​ ​community’s​​ ​Facebook​ ​page​.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.