I was never fabulous on terra firma, even back in the day when all of my limbs worked immediately and harmoniously on demand. I was better in the pool. But when my father waved enthusiastically as I ran the 1500m at the interschool athletics day, I waved back brimming with pride. He and I both knew I had no hope of winning, but I figured he was applauding my sportsmanship, when I volunteered to fill in for an injured long-distance runner, thereby ensuring that my school earned at least a point or two. Without letting it break my stride, I remember cracking a smile as I gave it my all. Which, as it turns out, wasn’t much. I was so far back in the field that they actually started the next race. Marshalls politely jogged along beside me, I thought in support, but it turned out that they were getting ready to haul me off the track so that the next runners could race to the finish line. When I eventually finished, all of the schools were cheering for me. I absolutely understand that it was for pity rather than prowess nonetheless, it was a unifying and fun moment in an otherwise boisterous but beleaguered day. I learned a lot in that race. The first and possibly most important thing was that when you’re running long distance, you don’t have to stay in the same lane. Tragically, I started and finished the race in lane 8 (the outside lane), which means that I ran far further and had to work much harder and faster just to (try to) keep up. It turns out that my poor father wasn’t “proud waving” so much as “embarrassed and frustrated former athlete waving”, telling me to move across to lane 1 with everyone else.
If we extrapolate, there are obvious business synergies to this long-distance race. We all know how important it is to be match fit, disciplined and ambitious team players. But the playing field isn’t always equal, and sometimes, life can throw us a curveball – an unexpected 1500m running race, or a pandemic with a recession chaser for example. We need to have a clear understanding of our role and purpose. I learned that you don’t necessarily have to be the winner, but goodwill, good humour and contribution toward the greater good, can generate loyalty and a positive contagion. Having the humility to admit that we don’t always have the answer or the winning strategy, but have the temerity to keep on trying.
We need to watch our competitors, remembering that they might not behave in the same way or be the ones we’ve known previously. We need to watch out for new ones that emerge in response to gaps and opportunities laid bare by the current circumstances, and understand that we may have to change lanes to stay in the game, but our end goal should never change. We need to make sure we fully embrace and adapt to the new environment in which we’re competing – empathetic leadership; evolving customer and team member need states; new methodologies of working and new technologies that will enhance performance.
Instead of being paralysed by fear of the challenge that lies ahead, we need to see the opportunities to evolve, pivot, innovate or simply be better. We need to step up to the plate and get out onto the field. The following excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s (rather long) “Citizen in a Republic” speech, which he delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910, is the most succinct and evocative telling of the honour of fronting up to challenges: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It’s as if he was foreshadowing my triumphant interschool race as he wrote…