Every Business Leader Should Do a Triathlon — At Least Once

Life Lessons Could Translate into Business Lessons.

Business leaders. Our employees look to us to lead them throughout the course of their careers with deft skill and aplomb. Whether we are the corporate cheerleader, the sage-like oracle, or the coach assisting them with business blocking and tackling, we are the people that others rely and depend upon. Because others rely on us, in good time and bad times, I believe it is incumbent upon us to know ourselves, so that we can lead from a position of self-knowledge and strength. It is that belief that causes me to say  — every business leader should participate in a triathlon, at least once.

For the last several years, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a dynamic group of business leaders and CEOs that meet once a year in Boston for intense business and personal sharing. Three years ago — and 15 pounds ago — I was challenged by my peers from this group to participate in a triathlon. They said it would change my life … boy, has it!

I have learned more about myself as a person, and a business leader from doing triathlons, than I have from any business class or seminar I have ever taken. I have taken what I have learned and infused this new self-awareness into my business and have put into practice the lessons I have learned with my staff.

Here are the business lessons I have learned from triathlons:

Confront the brutal reality. During a triathlon, brutal realities will come at you in all shapes and sizes, from flat bike tires, to muscle cramps and dehydration and you must deal with them. Most of these brutal realities cannot or should not be ignored. The same thought process applies to business. If a client is leaving you, deal with it now, in the moment. Pretending that it’s not happening only delays the inevitable.

Measure everything. Triathletes measure everything, from swim times, to calorie intake, to the amount of air in bike tires. If any of these key details are missed, their performance suffers. As a business leader, if you are not watching your financial metrics or your sales person’s activity metrics, your business will inevitably suffer as well.

It’s all about the journey; celebrate the small milestones. I freely admit that I am not a competitive triathlete. I have three goals with any race. Start the race, finish the race, and don’t get hurt.  I have no misconceptions that I am ever going to win a race. Instead, I challenge myself to improve my personal time. If I am having a tough race, I celebrate mile markers on the course, instead of criticizing my race performance. With my staff, I try to reinforce the small victories our team achieves every day. For example, we had a sales person who kept getting hung-up on while making marketing calls. At the end of the day, we gave her a certificate for dialing the phone in-spite of being hung up on. Business, like triathlons, can be a grind. Gotta enjoy the small victories.

It’s not easy, if it was, everyone would do it-do it anyways. Most triathlons are held early weekend mornings. Typically, the time most of the world is still in bed, sleeping. It takes self-discipline and self-commitment to get up and deal with the elements of a race. Our employees need that same type of self-discipline to be able to deliver on deadlines, deal with difficult clients or deliver a killer sales presentation. As the leaders of our teams, we can empathize with the tough situations our employees face, but it’s our job to help them grow professionally, and not let them take the easy way out.

We all want to quit at some point. I remember my very first triathlon. I jumped into the water for the swim portion, got 20 yards from land and I had a massive panic attack. I wanted to quit right in that moment. I had a decision to make; I could quit the race or I could push through the fear and keep going. I decided to continue and I finished the swim. I just kept swimming, looking for little bits of progress. In business, the same thought process applies; break down any fearful situation into small, manageable steps. When things are tough, the easy thing to do is quit. The business leader who is able to recognize his or her fears, and push through them, is the leader others will follow.

We cannot succeed alone. I have found the triathlon community to be one of the most supportive groups of people I have ever encountered. Most triathletes have coaches, as well as supportive friends and loved ones. There is nothing more invigorating than to be on a run or bike course and have fellow competitors or bystanders shouting words of encouragement. It’s great to hear “nice job, keep going.” In business, leaders need to be the support team for their employee’s. Studies show that positive reinforcement in the work place is under delivered by managers and is greatly sought after by employees. At the end of the day, business leaders need help from their employee’s to reach goals and objectives. A few kind words and supportive comments can be the pick-me-up an employee needs to hear to deliver for the organization and its leadership.

There is always room for improvement. Triathletes rarely settle. As a group, we are always training, reading articles and challenging ourselves to improve our athletic performance. In business, the old saying is “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”  It’s important, as business leaders, to be looking at how we can improve our performance, as well as the performance of teams.  Whether is it an investment in training, one on one coaching or even a company business book club, there are always little ways we can be growing as professionals.