Leadership: It’s not a marathon or a sprint

runningWhat was your time?” One time over beers, my brother-in-law suggested that asking people about their race time is a more clever way of saying, “I don’t run very much.” Running, like most passions, is an ongoing, ever evolving journey. It’s not about a single race or distance completed. Knowing you ran a 40-minute 10K or sub-two-hour half marathon five years ago doesn’t mean much today. Are you still running? How has your routine or thoughts about running changed?

Until running becomes a meaningful part of your day, you are not a runner. You are simply going for a run. The same is true for leadership.

This may seem like an odd intro to a post on leadership, but as I scrolled through my twitter feed last night, I got very nervous. We’re starting to slide down a very slippery slope.

Without question organizations need a vision to define actions and model behaviours. I know that people – myself included – search for inspiration from other people, but I feel we’ve gone too far. We’ve got too many visionaries and not enough examples of actual, practical leadership. Leadership is based on historical and future facing methodologies. It should evolve over time, and truly shines when things go wrong. Leadership is not a Buzzfeed like list of PowerPoints, clever acronyms and analogies.

In twenty minutes last night, I saw thousands of posts from hundreds of very smart people. I know Twitter’s 140 characters are meant to inspire, and without question, if you keep scrolling something will resonate with you. I saw leadership compared to sports teams, war heroes, emotions, inanimate objects, childhood actions and breathtaking art.

This is great for some people, but personally, I’d rather read about the impact and learn how these comparisons inspired action and people. To me, talking about models, acronyms and finding inspirational quotes is no different than asking someone what their last race time was. Leadership is an action; a passion that you should develop and display with purpose and routine. Finding a quote that resonates with your view of leadership is good, but using that inspiration to form your leadership style is the real challenge. You are more than your time, and you must be more than someone else’s words.

People look at TELUS as a textbook example of great culture and strong leadership. I honestly believe that to be true, but not because we tried to implement ideas that were so radical to those proposed by our competitors. There was no silver bullet, and no singular model that helped us drive engagement from 53% to 83%. I think we just focused on the value of culture more than some organizations and dedicated our efforts towards creating a culture that allowed individuals to feel supported and fulfilled.

We worked hard to create a leadership model that is accessible to all, but the real benefit is the playbook we created to help people understand the behaviours and actions that help all team members display leadership regardless of role or tenure. While that may sound like HR speak, the reality is we enabled team members to lead by example and inspire others. It’s not the model; it’s how the model is put into action.

People are naturally inspired by charismatic people speaking to an audience, but I’m inspired when people do amazing things without the luxury of an eager audience. I see true leadership in small wins, like when I hear about an engineer developing informal curriculum on his own time (without being asked), simply to help are field techs learn about IPV6. Leadership cannot only come from those with titles and reports.

I take my view on leadership (ironically, considering the theme of this post) from a quote that’s been on my wall for years. Yvon Chiounard, the owner of Patagonia and protector of the environment once said, “To do good, you actually have to do something.” It’s such a simple idea, but one that’s shaped how I interact with people and try to lead. I have no reports, but I work with new people every day. I don’t have a leadership toolbox, just a work ethic and desire to help.

Organizations need to maximize the power of the individual and celebrate the results. Employees should feel comfortable voicing opinions, surfacing ideas, but they must be empowered to put ideas into action. Our role, should be to nurture and share the successes with the rest of the organization. Showcasing the tangible results of all the hard work will help transform leadership from a concept into a continuous action. Real life examples of leadership and success will motivate people. They are the stories that build trust in a concept and in each other.

It’s easy to talk about leadership concepts, just like it’s easy to talk about running shoes, past races and training tips. The real challenge is getting people to actually go for a run or to be a leader. When we actually start doing either, we fail, we learn, we sweat and we hurt. We also grow, we improve and we find our stride.

We need to help people become runners, not just tell them to go for a run.

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