What Leaders Can Learn From Endurance Athletes

What Leaders Can Learn From Endurance Athletes

by Alison Eyring

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 intelligent 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.



Published February 16, 2017 in SmartBrief.  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. Her book, “Pacing for Growth: Why Intelligent Restraint Drives Long-term Success,” will be released in early 2017. 

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