5 Leadership Lessons from My 1st Spartan Race

A Crawford Spartan Race

Crawford climbing over an obstacle.

Let me begin by saying that I am not an athlete. Although I am active and workout, I have not participated in sports. However, this past weekend I found myself in my first Spartan race. The course was at a local ski resort; so needless to say, the 4.8 miles and 23 obstacles were like nothing I had ever experienced. Over 25 people from our gym signed up, with about a third of us having never attempted anything like this before. Tragically, one of our team members died unexpectedly the previous Sunday. Understandably, many of us had heavy hearts and unanswered questions, so we contemplated forgoing the race. Instead, we opted to go forward, with “(her name) Strong” scribed in marker across our arms, her headband worn by our coach, and her wristband tied around another team member’s wrist. As we began, I was nervous, but I also knew we were racing for more than just ourselves that day. Through this experience, I was also reminded of some lessons related to leadership that I thought I would share:

  • Those with experience need to transfer knowledge. The more experienced racers were quick to share their knowledge with those of us who had never run a race like this before. Standing right beside us and sharing advice related to options as to how we might want to approach each obstacle, while also providing examples of their personal experiences. In organizations, I often hear younger workers complain that more experienced workers are not sharing their knowledge, leaving them to “fend for themselves,” while more experienced employees sometimes assume that less experienced workers don’t want to hear what they have to say. Designing the new hire experience in a way that allows for more experienced employees to mentor new employees improves communication, increases collaboration and also reinforces the value tenured employees have within the organization.
  • Self-sacrificing leaders build loyalty. As we gathered for the race, our coach had just finished running with another person who was assigned an earlier time. We all knew that he was probably ready to head to the beer tent, but instead, he was going to be racing right along with us for the second time that day with only a 30-minute break. His commitment to the team built a strong sense of loyalty among us, as we knew that he was sacrificing selflessly for our benefit. In years where budgets are tight, I have seen selfless leaders forgo bonuses to ensure there was enough money allocated for employee raises. Other leaders come in early and stay late and work alongside their employees until the work is done. Their self-sacrifice does not go unnoticed, and it is often the glue that binds people together.
  • Encouragement and teamwork make the impossible possible. To say that the course was difficult for me is an understatement. Wading through mud, climbing hills and over walls, carrying sandbags or buckets of rocks, all pushed many of us to our physical limits. However, negativity was quickly redirected to encouragement from other racers. Inability to easily complete an obstacle led to assistance by someone who was stronger. Other team members even literally jumped in to help me with my 30 burpee penalty when I could not complete an obstacle, and I returned the favor to others. In organizations, we can improve teamwork by redirecting negative conversations toward what can be done, versus allow our cultures to become polluted by discussions about things we cannot control. We also know that by leveraging the strengths of each team member, we can be much more effective and accomplish more than any of us as individuals.

    Crawford with daughter, Alexis (14) and husband Jason.

    Crawford with daughter, Alexis (14) and husband Jason.

  • Sometimes it takes a direct order to overcome a difficult situation. As we rolled through the mud under barbed wire for what felt like a quarter of a mile (I know it only felt this long), my nephew, who was in front of me, stopped and stared up at the sky saying, “I cannot do this. I am going to quit.” My stern and quick reply was, “Nephew, you will not and you will immediately keep rolling.” He did. When I felt like stopping myself once, someone else gave such a direct order to me, and I needed it. Sometimes when I talk to leaders, they say they are hesitant to give direct orders because we know that creating collaborative and open cultures are most effective. However, sometimes when your team is afraid or unsure of the direction, they need a leader who is quick to stand up and provide direct guidance as to how they should move forward. Although telling people what to do is not advisable as an ongoing leadership technique, there are times when it is necessary to inspire people to find the strength to keep going.
  • People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Toward the end of the race, we all stopped to watch as a team hoisted a member of their group up to the top of the rope climb so she could ring the bell. Apparently, her son died a year ago, and her team was helping her complete this race from her wheelchair in his honor. Watching that team move her through every obstacle together brought a tear to more than one eye. Our team had also been spurred on by the tragic death of one of our members. Even without these unfortunate circumstances, you could feel a powerful sense of community as racers seemed to be striving toward a purpose much larger than themselves. When I talk to people who work in organizations where they say they are highly committed, I often hear stories about how they feel that the work makes them feel part of something larger than what they as an individual can accomplish. We need to allow our employees to use all of their strengths, knowledge, skills and experience in a way that makes them feel they are doing something that really matters, even if it pushes them out of their comfort zone. By doing so, we just might be giving them the freedom to accomplish more than they ever dreamed possible.
Team shot of participants in Crawford's group after completing the Spartan race.

Team shot of participants in Crawford’s group after completing the Spartan race.

The Spartan race is certainly not for everyone. I am not even sure when I might race again. Do I believe that organizations who follow this advice will have team members holding hands and jumping through fire after a big project, as we did to end this race? Probably not; nor would I recommend it. However, I do believe that something can be learned from every tragedy and challenge, if we only spend time reflecting on these experiences and think about how what we learn may benefit others.
I hope by sharing this perspective, I have encouraged you to take what you can from your own experiences and apply it in ways that will make our organizations better for the people we serve.
Angela Crawford, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Thomas More College in the Business College teaching Organizational Behavior, Marketing, Management and Strategy related courses. Crawford has over 20 years of experience in marketing and business management. Article reprinted with the express permission of author.

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