Leading the Pack

What do CEOs, runners, and maybe a writer or two have in common?

If your first meeting tomorrow is at 8 am, are you getting up at 5 am to get in a 10 mile run with weights on your back before heading to the office? Maybe you should be.

Research into the personality traits of endurance athletes, particularly runners, shows that what makes a person good at one of those things is generally a contributing factor to being a good leader at work as well. It’s easy to see why a CEO or a highly ranking professional would pick a sport like running to maintain their fitness – running can be done anywhere and at any time. This would explain why the CEOs of Vangaurd, Walt Disney, and T-Mobile have been known to run marathons. Whether work hours are unpredictable or a senior manager is frequently traveling, it is always possible to schedule a run. There are also a number of personality traits that endurance athletes – marathoners, ultra-marathoners, triathletes – have that translate well to the business world.

One key trait of a distance athlete is the ability to focus on, and commit to, a long-term goal. The decision to run a marathon occurs months, if not a year, in advance of the final event and the thought process behind a training plan is not unlike a long-term project schedule. There are phases, intermittent goals, and targets that need to be met, as well as regular workouts to be done before race day. Four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers has said that “to be a consistent winner means preparing not just one day, one month, or even one year – but for a lifetime.

This advice has suited leaders like Nike’s Mark Parker, who started at the lifestyle company as a product designer after graduating college in the 70s and was named CEO in 2006. A key mindset present in both endurance athletes and business professionals is the ability to visualize the end goal and the ability to achieve it. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Parker said that he loves looking at sketches and being able “to see past a rendering or poorly fabricated prototype to the underlying virtues of a new idea.” This ability to see the marketable end product of a sketch is not unlike seeing how short-term workout steps lead up to reaching an athletic goal. Another essential personality trait of both athletes and professionals is a strong sense of ambition. According to sports psychologist Dr. Charlie Brown, both long distance athletes and business professionals “have got great habits that fit an endurance framework… [They] just have to be able to grind it out and endure.”

A key mindset present in both endurance athletes and business professionals is the ability to visualize the end goal and the ability to achieve it.

In addition to the similarities in personalities between high performing athletes and high earners with C-suite or high managerial roles, there are studies that show how benefits for physical activity can help work life. For example, running long distances a few times a week – not to mention the occasional race – gives professionals mental and physical time to problem-solve work issues. Henrik Kjellberg, president of Hotwire, told Fast Company that he exercises without headphones to facilitate the flow of ideas. “Even on a four-hour bike ride or a three-hour run, I never get bored. Once I’m finished, even if I’m in a tough spot at work, I come in calm and balanced, ready to make good decisions. Almost no senior leader I admire comes to work stressed.”

A study from 2011 shows that CEOs who have completed at least one marathon are likely to see higher profitability and positive M&A returns. This could be attributed to the hours in the week those managers spend problem solving while running, or perhaps because their personalities are that much more tuned in to running their businesses.

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wrote a memoir about his career as a runner alongside his career as an author called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He began running when he began writing, at age 33, and has since participated in over 30 marathons, at least one ultramarathon, and a handful of triathlons. During that time, his writing has been translated into over 50 languages, his books have been on The New York Times bestsellers list for many weeks, and he has won numerous literary awards in Japan and worldwide. When talking about what motivates him to run and write, he explains how “exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.”

It may also be that pushing to one’s limits is where all of those personality traits culminate, for a runner, a CEO, a writer – any leader. It’s where endurance meets perseverance, and creativity meets problem solving. It’s where the building blocks of great work happen.

the author

Lena Rubisova

Lena Rubisova is graphic design lead at Idea Couture.