Leading and Enduring

Sep 8, 2010 | Blog


Recently, I sent the following e-mail to my staff:

“I did it! Five K’s in 38.18 minutes! Not bad for my first run!”

At my age, with an eye toward running a half marathon in 2011 and a full marathon during my 70th birthday year, in the fall of 2012 (that’s 26 miles!), I felt reasonably good about completing this 5K. I felt fairly strong as I finished the race in the middle of approximately 275 runners.

As I was preparing for this run, I came across the following story. It is a challenging story of a Tanzanian Olympic runner. He did not win the race, but while most have forgotten the winner, his decisive action during the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Marathon, continues to stand as a lesson on endurance for real leaders.

  How to Finish a Marathon

1968 Olympics in Mexico City

“In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tanzanian John Stephen Ahkwari was the last runner in the marathon.  He came in about an hour and a half after the winner, practically carrying his leg, as it was so bloodied and bandaged.

Film Director Bud Greenspan asked him, “Why did you keep going?” He said, “You don’t understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.” (view viedo)

I like the spirit and attitude of this leader!

His story reminds me of the leader of another inspirational, challenging journey. We may not face the same “life or death” experiences where we serve, but the principles learned from Ernest Shackleton as told in the book “Endurance” can serve to guide our journey as leaders.

Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic Expedition

In August 1914, Ernest Shackleton, an intrepid British explorer, boarded the ship Endurance. He and his team of 27 men set sail for the South Atlantic. The group wanted to be the first to cross Antarctica.

Early the next year, their ship, the Endurance, was trapped by ice. By October 1915, still half a continent away from their intended base and reaching their goal, the ship was crushed by ice.  Shackleton and his men, drifting on ice packs, were castaways in one of the most savage regions of the world. Shackleton realized the goal of making the first land crossing of the Antarctic Continent would not be realized. His new goal became the rescue of his entire team—alive.

The team had an extraordinary leader, Ernest Shackleton, who remained filled with optimism and creativity. These two driving forces compelled Shackleton to “believe it can be done,” and to “believe there is always another option.”

Shackleton continually inspired his team by example—strong symbolic acts of leadership. He was a master at building morale, cohesion, and cooperation among his men. Shackleton constantly reinforced the communal concept that we are one—we live or die together. He minimized status differences and was a master at diffusing conflict. Interestingly, Shackleton found reasons to celebrate and laugh together, even under extreme pressure.

This leader was a master at setting goals and balancing risks. More than a year after the shipwreck, Shackleton and his men were still stranded, now on an island. The food was dwindling, and there appeared little hope of rescue. Survival, Shackleton realized, depended on a bold act. They must reach civilization, an outpost by way of a 1000-mile voyage in an open boat across the stormiest ocean on the globe and then over-land through some of the most treacherous terrain of forbidding glaciers and mountains.

He took the chance.

Amazingly, the men survived and were rescued in 1917—every one of them—everyone survived. Everyone!


Ten Strategies for “Enduring”

Not only does this story inspire and challenge me, the lessons for leading through extraordinary times and situations have been captured by Perkins in his book Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition which outlines 10 leadership strategies for leaders who plan to endure.

1. Vision and Quick Victories: Never lose sight of the ultimate goal and focus energy on short-term objectives.
2. Symbolism and Personal Example: Set a personal example with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors.
3. Optimism and Reality: Instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality.
4. Stamina: Take care of yourself: Maintain your stamina and let go of guilt.
5. The Team Message: Reinforce the team message constantly: “We are one—we live or die together.”
6. Core Team Values: Minimize status differences and insist on courtesy and mutual respect.
7. Conflict: Master conflict—deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents and avoid needless power struggles.
8. Lighten Up! Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.
9. Risk: Be willing to take the big risk.
10. Tenacious Creativity: Never give up—there’s always another move.

We need to continue the discussion of the relationship of leading to enduring in the assignments God gives to us. Enduring until He releases us from these assignments.

Meanwhile, I will continue my training for the half-marathon race in 2011! 

LeBron Fairbanks

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