Running the Marathon That Never Ends

By Leah Fessler

When the virus hit, we prepared for a sprint. But the race kept going. As it turns out, this is neither a sprint nor a marathon. It’s a jacked up Iron Man held in the Sahara desert. We didn’t train, but as executives, we’re still expected to win first place.

To survive — and succeed — we must invest in our endurance.

“Think of endurance as how long you can keep your pace. It’s a tortoise, rather than a hare measure of productivity,” explains organizational psychology expert Liane Davey. “Endurance is not resilience. Resilience is how quickly you can recover from atypical challenges and get back to your pace. Endurance empowers you to keep moving once you’ve regained speed.”

Endurance differentiates great leaders from their less effective counterparts because our most challenging duties — large-scale transformation, mergers, acquisitions — cannot be achieved overnight. High-impact leaders realize the value of chipping away at progress, and learning through unglamorous setbacks.

“We have a concept of leadership that is centered around heroic individuals triumphing over a specific moment or foe,” says Heidi Brooks, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management. “Conventional ideas of leadership often include power over others, displays of dominance, strength, confidence, and directional clarity. But no one really wants to work for people who are overpowering and dominant, day-in and day-out.”

Updating our concept of leadership requires realizing that power isn’t just about achievement — it’s also about impact. Impact is achieved through micro-moments of encouragement — which, compounded, create endurance.

Brooks presents three strategies for creating such impactful micro-moments: First, actively listen and summarize what you hear before rebutting. Second, get curious about what your team is feeling — ask what caught their attention after a meeting, or what’s most important to them right now. Third, let others know you’re thinking of them, instead of passively saying “my door is open if you need me.”

Ultimately, these micro-moments set us up for healthy forward momentum, which is more sustainable than toughing it out. “We need to beware of our tendency to use martyrdom and suffering as a crutch,” says Brooks.

Brooks also advises creating a plan that’s anchored in value-aligned activities, which we’re more motivated to sacrifice for. To do this, run a scan of your core professional activities, rating each from -10 (severely depleting) to 10 (extremely enlivening). Analyze patterns, surprises, and whether your most important activities are truly enlivening and self-reinforcing.

If you cannot change your responsibilities, you can change your perspective. Consider the age-old story of three workers lathing bricks: The first describes their work as laying bricks, the second as building a wall, and the third as building a cathedral.

Even if you don’t initially believe it, a more values-consistent framing will help you endure the challenging, boring, and necessary components of the bigger picture. Enduring this race is about mindset. We don’t know when it will end. All we can do is prepare. And preparation hinges on perspective — which you, alone, control.

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