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What Doing the Ironman Taught Me About Leadership

08/06/2015 12:53 EDT | Updated 08/06/2016 05:59 EDT
Joe Strolz

Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to do an Ironman. I was enthralled by the excitement of watching athletes race to the finish after 226 kilometres of swimming, cycling and running, but what I didn't realize was the level of commitment and training required just to get to the start line.

So in my mid-20s, I started training. Then, after a garden-variety tendinitis injury set me back, I convinced myself my body wasn't cut out for the challenge and that I was okay with that.

I'll just say it: I quit.

Fifteen years later, the itch returned. I wanted - needed - to try again. And, on July 26, after nine months of intense training, I completed Whistler's Ironman Canada - a journey that not only changed me personally, but also professionally.

Here are five lessons I learned from (finally) achieving my dream.

It's not just about the end-game

There's a common trap leaders can fall into - and that's thinking that, with enough elbow grease, we can muscle our way through any situation to reach a goal. I quickly learned that the most amazing and worthwhile part of my Ironman was not going to be the moment I crossed the finish line - though that was a thrill.

The part that had the biggest impact on me was the journey; the training itself.

Now, when I think about business and competing as a team, I have a new mindset: The goal is to inspire day-to-day fulfilment, a commitment to professional improvement and pride in the work. The end-game is simply a product of that journey.

Time spent on you improves time spent on work

To get my body ready for the triathlon, I had to modify my lifestyle. To schedule up to 17 hours of endurance exercise per week and still excel at work, I had to get up earlier, sleep more and rely on the support of my family more than ever before.

While the training was oftentimes painful, it was also often meditative.

I had many pre-dawn moments where I was able to calmly curate my objectives for the day and, more often than not, it was in the middle of a long swim or run when I came to some of my best ideas or most creative solutions to thorny challenges.

I also loved how alive I felt when I got to work, kicking off my day with a renewed energy, excitement and focus.

Fitness affects more than just your body

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Maybe, but I was truly surprised at how my training extended amazing benefits across every facet of my life.

In the past, if you had asked anyone who worked with me, I might be described as "intense" or "hard-driving" - not always the best qualities of a leader. Interestingly, my 360 review feedback, after I started my training, illustrated clearly how my leadership style had changed and was felt by those around me. I was genuinely astounded to hear feedback with phrases like "calm in the storm" and "Zen-like."

If you quit, you're giving up more than you think

Looking back, my failed first attempt at an Ironman highlighted one important thing. What I thought I was giving up was crossing the finishing line. What I was actually giving up were the personal and professional benefits of healthy mind and body that were the result of disciplined training.

At the time, I didn't have the discipline required to do something I really wanted to do - a quality that will definitely set you back both in a race and in business.

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes, but recognizing that the right journey can in fact be the reward, is the key.

Leadership is something you do

A lot of companies talk about the importance of work-life balance and health, and if it is a good company, programs and incentives are wrapped around this philosophy. While a company can support and celebrate that investment in health, it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to own.

Unfortunately, employees in competitive fields can feel intimidated when it comes to taking ownership of their own balance. What I've learned is that when leaders are open about their own commitment to personal well-being, that gives the rest of the team license to do this for themselves.

A healthier team is a more self-motivated team, and the business results are the outcome of a commitment to the right journey.

*This piece previously appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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