Ironman World Championship Finish Line

Four Leadership Lessons from the Ironman World Championship

Ironman triathlon can teach us a lot of leadership lessons.

As I watched this amazing event this past weekend, an event that I once competed in (have I mentioned that before?), I was once again inspired and amazed by the athletes crossing the finish line. But over the past few years, I have been seeing this race from an entirely new perspective.

When I took over my family business nearly five years ago, I began seeing the connection between triathlon and leadership. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that triathlon attracts a lot of leaders. Naturally we have a desire to help people succeed, and a desire to challenge our limits.

So when I watched the Ironman World Championship this past weekend, I watched it with a keen eye toward the leadership lessons we could learn from the event. Here are just a few I found:

You don’t win the race by giving 110%. You win by giving 80% consistently

Chelsea Sodaro won the Ironman World Championship handily yesterday. As I watched her dominate the rest of the field of women, I noticed something interesting. While staying ahead of the pace of the competition, she also walked many of the aid stations. She didn’t win because she sprinted the entire race, she won because she gave herself the capacity to endure.

I cringe every time I hear someone say “I will give you 110%”. That is not a sustainable strategy. As leaders, most of the races we are running are long. There will be ups and downs, and we have to give ourselves the capacity to think, ideate, respond, and take care of ourselves. High achievers tend to believe that they have to give a superhuman effort to achieve the results they desire. Unfortunately, the result of constant “hero mode” for us mere mortals is burnout, frustration, anxiety, or worse.

Leadership is an endurance race, and it has to be paced accordingly.

Aim to get just 1% better at a time

The story of the day yesterday was Chris Nikic, who became the first athlete with down syndrome to complete the Ironman World Championship. He did it in epic fashion by beating the cutoff of 17 hours. Throughout his training and racing, Nikic promoted the idea of “1%” – striving to get just 1% better at a time. While 1% may not seem like much, it is imminently achievable, and results compound over time so that you can ultimately achieve things you never thought possible. Chris Nikic is the embodiment of that idea. Do you want to achieve something BIG? Do it 1% at a time.

Everybody can win THEIR race

Triathlon is unique in that it is one of a very few sports where the last place finisher is equally ecstatic as the first place finisher. Why? Because the final finisher isn’t competing against the first place finisher. They are competing against themselves, and in the process they are achieving something 99.99999% of people in the world will never even dream of achieving. They prove to themselves what they are capable of, and have now created a point of reference for future success. This is actually my favorite part of Ironman races – to see that life does not have to be a zero sum game, but everyone can win. If we run our race the right way, we can do so in leadership too.

It is okay to experience fear because only in experiencing fear do we have the opportunity to rise above it.

At the start line of any Ironman triathlon, you can cut the tension with a knife. Anxiety levels are high because uncertainty is high. We are so dependent on two important aspects that naturally lead to fear – faith, and trust in our preparation. But in every single race, the vast majority of athletes go at the cannon despite feeling afraid. They rise above their fear and go anyway.

At the finish line, you see these athletes experience a sense of fulfillment that few other activities can provide. Why? Because we can experience the most fulfillment when we successfully expand our comfort zone. In short, we are most alive when we grow. We grow when we rise above our fears.

What lessons did you take from the Ironman World Championship?

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