What Ultra Running Has Taught Me About Military Leadership

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Picture of me crossing over Hope Pass (12,600’) during the Leadville Training Camp, June 2015, in preparation for the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Race in August.

As a sophomore at West Point, my soon-to-be best friend handed me a copy of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, by Dean Karnazes. I couldn’t put that book down, finishing it in less than 24 hours. That’s when I became hooked on ultramarathon running. Since then, over the last nine years, I’ve completed over two dozen trail races from the marathon to 100 mile distance. Many ask me why I do this and I tend to simply respond with, “why not?” I recently read a blog post that posed the seemingly perfect answer to that question. It stated, “perhaps the genius of ultra-running is the supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense…”

I couldn’t agree more.

However, through more reflection, I’ve come to realize that this crazy hobby has in fact taught me plenty in my life, especially about leadership. I genuinely feel this sport has made me a better leader. By no means am I claiming that you have to be an endurance athlete to be a successful leader; very few of the leaders and mentors that I respect have ventured into the endurance sports world. Personally though, being an ultra-runner has taught me several critical leadership principles that serve as the bedrock of my leadership philosophy. It doesn’t require being an endurance athlete to learn these, but I encourage you to study these principles and how they shape your leadership style.

Perspective. During company command, my brigade commander stated that leaders communicate perspective. Communicating perspective encourages vision buy-in and shows your team the reality of its situation. As a leader, when in frustrating or seemingly overwhelming situations, I often remind myself that this (whatever my circumstance is) is much easier than a 100 mile race and I can handle it.

Discipline. As a leader, you are left to your own devices and do not have a direct supervisor routinely looking over your shoulder. You are trusted to make decisions and to choose the harder right, rather than the easier wrong, when no one is looking. That requires discipline. I constantly have to exercise discipline as an endurance athlete, forcing myself out the door for a multi-hour weekend training run early in the morning regardless of my motivation level or the weather.

Comfort with discomfort. In a race lasting 12 to 24 hours, I know I am going to experience discomfort. Whether it is chafing, soreness, fatigue, sleep deprivation, or stomach issues, I must deal with the issue in order to finish the race. Military leaders must be able to cope with discomfort and accomplish the mission. There is a reason that Army “premier leadership schools” (Ranger, etc.) force their students into extreme discomfort. Discomfort as a leader generally leads to professional growth. Comfort is overrated; it encourages laziness.

Generating your own energy. The Military Leader posted an inspiring entry about the importance of “bringing the energy” to your team. Leaders have to set the tone for their teams and foster an attitude necessary to accomplish the mission. Similarly, during an ultra-race, when alone in the dark with miles still ahead, I have to generate my own motivation to keep moving. No one is going to do that for me. I have to constantly fight back the creeping thoughts of quitting and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Reflection. Reflection as a leader is vital. Learning critical lessons from your experiences requires deliberate personal reflection. How you reflect as a leader is unique; find an environment that best facilitates self-discovery by analyzing and thinking through recent experiences. My best reflection happens during a multi-hour training trail run on the weekend. If you see me typing or talking into my phone on the trail, it’s safe to assume I’m recording a reflection lesson on a note or voice memo.

No matter how you learn these principles, they are necessary to be a successful leader, military or not. Reflect how these influence your leadership style and how you develop them personally. I encourage you to share your insight and what experiences have developed these principles or similar ones.

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