There’s a funny video that made the rounds online not long ago about the, “First Person To Run A Marathon Without Talking About It.” Over images of runners stretching and jogging, a deep, documentary-narrator voice says soberly, “for years running a marathon without telling anyone was thought to be physically impossible.”
The dig at runners is apt, and I’m guilty as charged. I basked in cheers and congratulations when I recently finished a half-marathon. To motivate myself for the final push up the last hill, I even visualized posting Instagram photos of myself crossing the finish line. Not exactly what one imagines Rocky thinks about in training. Completing the half-marathon was a big accomplishment for me, but at the end of the day it was about me and my ego. Completing Tough Mudder, a military-style run and obstacle course you do with a team, is an altogether different experience -- and it completely changed the way I think about leadership.
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In Tough Mudder, there’s no prize for winning and no finish time. There isn’t even a winner. You complete the arduous course with a group -- mine had 20. Though you set off with the aim of bringing your personal best, your reward is the sense of bonding and camaraderie that comes with being forced to let your guard down with your teammates and support one another through physically and mentally demanding challenges. And let me tell you, it is sweet. All the cheers, congratulations and sense of personal accomplishment I got out of a half-marathon don’t begin to compare to the rush and emotional high of Tough Mudder.
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We need to find a way to replicate that dynamic in the work place. For a long time, I thought about leading Vision Critical, the customer intelligence software company I founded in 2000, similarly to running a marathon. I demanded the best out of myself and out of the people I worked with, and each of us pushed ourselves individually to accomplish as much as possible. We’ve accomplished a lot; but, like in most workplaces, moments where we truly broke down barriers between one another to inspire creativity and true camaraderie have been rare.
Whether trying to come up with new ideas or just get through a massive pile of work, organizations, including ours, need to find a way to tap into the Tough Mudder thrill of being truly invested in one another as we work towards a goal together. It can be challenging to let go of your own ego, but if we can find ways to collaborate passionately and supportively with coworkers, customers and the industry as a whole, we’ll find our companies transformed. These days, employees and customers alike demand a sense of purpose and mastery over their lives. The fulfillment that comes from teamwork and accomplishing goals together rather than individually will go a long way toward evoking the sense of meaning that customers and employees demand.
To inject the sensibility of Tough Mudder into the enterprise, leaders need to remember these lessons:
1. Mentorship is fulfilling for both parties.
I’m in decent shape, so I was fortunate to be in a position to help people who were having a more difficult time with the course than I. My help was useful for them, but being able to connect to other people, sometimes strangers, with open-heartedness and helpfulness made the entire experience much more rewarding for me too.
2. Empathy is a contribution, too.
Tough Mudder is physically demanding, but the course also plays on your fears. Helping pull someone up a wall is a great contribution, but so is talking someone through a leap off a tall structure. People can support each other in all kinds of ways, both physical and emotional, and they should all be valued.
3. Autonomy matters.
Allowing a team to move at a pace that works for them doesn’t just lead to more efficient processes, it instills the sense of camaraderie and pride in one another that makes the experience so rewarding in the end.
4. Celebrate each person’s contribution.
Everyone brings something to the table, even if it’s just getting themselves over an obstacle or just showing up and giving their best effort. Being a team doesn’t require you to ignore the contributions of individuals.
5. Celebrate each person’s improvement.
As every member of a team gets better and overcomes their own challenges, the team as a whole gets stronger. The improvement of one is the improvement of all and deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
6. Celebrate the team.
While acknowledging individuals is important, it’s also important to keep the main focus on the group. Getting to the finish line is nice but the reward in Tough Mudder isn’t the finish line, it’s the process of overcoming challenges together. In this sense, the end is just a new beginning. Whether it’s slogging through a muddy obstacle course or brainstorming on how to better serve our customers, I can’t wait for my next chance to work hard at a difficult challenge with my team.
With the right perspective, shared and demanding experiences -- whether they be out in the wild or on a muddy obstacle course -- can dramatically transform what you bring to the boardroom and the workplace. I’ll endeavor going forward to link my Tough Mudder experience to the way I communicate and collaborate with the people who work with me. Anyone can benefit from an experience like Tough Mudder, but for entrepreneurs and leaders especially, these lessons have the potential to vastly improve the way you collaborate and lead, teams.