Over the last decade, triathlon has become the executive sport de rigueur. Triathlon tests you in different ways than most other endurance sports. And interestingly, it is analogous of the unique challenges of executive leadership.
Unlike single-mode sports, triathlon combines three different sports: swimming, cycling, and running. And while there are athletes that place well by being exceptionally good at one sport, to be a highly-successful triathlete, you need to be a top-performer in all three. Top-finishers also know how to transition logistically and physiologically between them. This creates an exceptionally well-rounded athlete in both body and mind.
Like triathlon, executive leadership involves three core key competencies: setting a vision, developing strategy, and managing accountability. Great leaders are well-versed in each of these disciplines and know how to move fluidly between them.
Athletes who progress to Ironman-distance events ─ that’s a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run ─ have developed several key characteristics that can serve them well as executives:
They know the importance of balance
The first thing you learn as a triathlete is that you need to balance your training amongst three different sports. While you need to accel in each, the real trick is learning how to balance all three. Transitioning from one to the next seamlessly is the key to being a top-performer. As training progress towards race day, triathletes conduct “brick” workouts, which means to combine two or even all three sports into one training session. This conditions the body to learn to cycle after being taxed by a swim, and to run after their legs have been spent on the bike. Athletes that can make these transitions successfully and quickly gain time in the race.
Likewise, successful executives know that they need to be able to move quickly and fluidly from setting goals, to communicating strategic focus, to evaluating performance. Those who excel in each area and who can transition effectively between will be highly successful.
They create long-term plans
Great triathletes plan their races down to each individual mile. They know when they should be out of the water and on the bike. They know the split for everyone mile on their run. If they are behind, they know exactly how hard they need to push themselves. And if they are ahead, they know that they risk overexertion and hitting the proverbial brick wall. They know exactly how much to eat and drink before, after, and during the race and can make subtle adjustments for temperature and timing.
High-performance executives, too, have a clear plan for where they want to be and how they are going to get there. They define their long-term goals and success criteria. They create a roadmap for the teams to follow. And they continually monitor progress and make adjustments to keep their teams aligned and on target.
They are masters of discipline and commitment
To finish an Ironman-distance event, you need to train for about 10 to 15 hours a week, for 4 to 6 months. This means fitting 1 to 2 hours a day into your schedule on a regular basis and at least one 2 to 4 hour session each week. With this level of excursion, trainers typically need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to stay healthy. Fitting this in and staying motivated is one of the hardest parts of being an Ironman competitor. While it takes superhero-strength to push through the last ten miles of the biking portion after you’ve been on the course for 10 or more hours, waking up at 5 AM in the pitch black of winter and jumping into a cold pool takes a mind of steel.
Executives are continuously faced with difficult and significant challenges. Making tough calls on strategy and objectives, addressing poor performance, and resolving conflicts tests a person’s mental and physical stamina. And while executives can turn to peers and coaches for aid and advice, they are often alone in confronting these matters. Having the confidence and clarity to act decisively takes mental fortitude.
They develop a strong mental focus
Many observers think that the greatest challenge that athletes endure is overcoming pain. In fact, while the pain can be great, the biggest challenge is to not succumb to the boredom of a ten-plus hour race. With such long distances to travel, competitors feel worn out, especially after being alone for miles at a time. Keeping your head in the race is the most challenging and important part of the event. Failing to do so leads to waning effort, failure to eat and drink properly, missing important turns, and even accidents.
In business, staying in the game and keeping long-term objectives in mind as you deal with the minutia and drama of day-to-day operations takes focus. Executives who get caught up in insignificant details and forget to keep their goals in mind will find themselves straying from them. It’s the leader’s job to listen to the irate customer and the infuriated employee while still making the right long-term decision, despite the short-term consequences.
While many successful executives are not Ironman competitors, and many Ironman competitors are not executives, the disproportionately-high percentage of those who are both is not by accident. High-performing people often have several outlets for their ambition and need to succeed. I know so from my own experience as an Ironman and a CEO.Both position are a manifestation of the same internal drive and desire that I have to excel in everything I do.
Bruce Eckfeldt is an entrepreneur, a former Inc. 500 CEO, and a member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He is an expert in organizational performance and coaches startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. You can reach him at [email protected] or visit his website at http://www.eckfeldt.com.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, its management, or its other members.