Friday 5: The View from NYC – 5 Leadership Learnings from the NYC Marathon

It is a treat for me to get to live in the Big Apple. I mean, the city has almost anything to offer at any time of the day. As a vegan, I get to have 213 vegetarian and vegan restaurants at my fingertips. As a lover of Broadway, Hamilton is playing right up the street (though getting tickets offers its own challenge). And as a person who loves to observe people, a simple ride on a subway offers its own special drama every time I take a trip downtown. Though, there’s one special event that only happens once a year in NYC and I try not to miss it. It’s the NYC Marathon.

Now, let’s not get confused.  I don’t run the marathon. I stand on the sidelines to watch and cheer on the runners. I’m on the official “Olympic standing there team” (anybody else remember the Friends episode where Joey says that about Chandler’s lack of foosball?). I think training and running the marathon might offer its own lessons in leadership and possibility – particularly for my 44-year old body – but standing on the sidelines gives me a unique, front row view of hope, resilience, struggle and strength, and it’s the one thing in NYC that I don’t miss.

This year while watching the marathon (I got to combine two of my NYC loves…one of my favs on Broadway, 2016 Tony Winner Cynthia Erivo who plays “Celie” in the Tony winning revival of The Color Purple ran the marathon) many ideas begin to pop in my head about lessons of leadership that we learn just by watching these incredible runners, and I thought I would share 5 of them with you:

  1. Run your race, Keep your pace
    As I stood a few yards in front of the Mile 23 marker in Central Park and watched the hundreds of people move by, I noticed there were runners, walkers, and folks that were barely standing. Again, not being a runner, don’t quote me on this, but the folks who were stumbling or barely standing, probably ran someone else’s race.  By that I mean, they probably trained at their pace, but probably got out with all these other runners and tried to keep pace with others’ who were faster or had trained differently. How many times do we do that in our lives? We compare ourselves to the people around us (usually by looking at social media) and think that our lives and our experiences just don’t measure up.  The thing about that comparison is that it tires us out and has us running a race (or living a life) that isn’t ours.  How can we remember to run our own race, and keep the pace as leaders that is meant for us?
  2. Step out of bounds to help a friend
    I will forever watch the NYC Marathon at mile 23. I think that’s the mile where our humanity shows up – for better or for worse (see note about people barely standing above). The humanity of the runners was being tested the whole 26.2 miles, but Mile 23 tests the humanity of the folks on the sidelines. And both were beautiful. I watched loved one after love one cross the metal barriers that we were held behind to run alongside their friend…in jeans, sweaters, and sometimes boots…just to give them that extra boost of energy to push that extra mile. Whenever are we able to step out of our everyday expectations and normality of our lives to give an extra listening ear, kind word, or assistance to a friend, we should do it.  It doesn’t matter what artificial barriers have been set up.
  3. Listen to Good Music
    I love music. And to run a marathon, I would MOST DEFINITELY need to have a playlist that lifted me up and that inspired me. Many of the runners had on headphones and it made me wonder what was on their playlist over 2 hours into the race. Did they pick India Arie’s “Just Do You” (I would pick that one) or was it the Rocky Theme (that too!)? What was the pump up music that they needed?  What’s the “music” that we are listening to? Not the literal music, but the voices that surround us. Are we surrounding ourselves with people who will lift us up? Or the folks that tear us and our dreams down? I want the most positive playlist I can have in my ear as I run this life marathon.

  4. Get clear on your purpose
    My guess is that everyone who completed the race had a relatively clear goal. The 26.2-mile marker. The finish line. To beat their training time. But then there were the folks who had a purpose on top of their goal. You might be scratching your head and saying, “What do you mean Tanya? Aren’t they the same thing?” For me they are different. The goal might be the thing we are striving to achieve, but the purpose is the why we are even there – to me, it’s the thing that gives life to the goal. At the marathon, I saw runners’ whose shirts read “For Uncle Billy” or that named the number of years they had survived cancer. I didn’t have to know what their individual stories were to know that they were going to complete that marathon because they had their purpose for running as the wind at their back. So many of us in life are going after these goals dictated by society or what it looks like to be successful, but for what purpose.  The clarity of purpose makes a difference.

  5. The “you take a risk you might be rewarded” – MTA, -weather, -life
    This last realization actually happened on my walk away from the marathon and as I was getting on the subway to head back home to Harlem. As I swiped my Metrocard to get on the subway from 86th up to 135th, I saw an MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) worker holding open a side door to the regular turnstile entrance and calling for marathon runners to show him their marathon medals and offering them a free ride on the subway. I immediately thought, “How cool, they are getting a reward for their bravery.” The subways in New York cost $2.75 per ride, so it might not seem like much – but it adds up – but it helped me realize that their reward was so much greater than the $2.75 that the MTA employee was putting back in their pocket. Their very willingness to take a risk many months before to say, “yes, I’m going to run that marathon” was paying off. When they signed up, they had no idea what the weather was going to be or what would be going on in their lives at the time of the marathon, but they signed up anyway and started training. And they were rewarded. It was a gorgeous fall day. They had millions of people cheering for them along the streets of NYC. They got to see all five boroughs of the city in the most scenic way possible. They got random people like me who said “congratulations!” to anyone I passed on the street wearing a blue marathon heatsheet on the day of the marathon smiling big toothy grins at them. And they got a free ride on the subway. We actually never know where our rewards will come from when we take a risk, but I do believe they are always there (even if we have sore muscles or might get bumped and bruised in route to them.)

If you’ve never watched a marathon (and don’t think you’ll ever run one), I encourage you to find your nearest marathon and sign up for the “Olympic Standing There” team and take it all in from Mile 23.

Tanya O. Williams is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at LeaderShape and works primarily with the Resilience program. Tanya describes herself as a Social Justice Educator, Life Lover, Possibility Creator, Liberation Seeker and Hope Giver and has been affiliated with LeaderShape for 20 years. And she’s loved every minute of it! You can find Tanya on Instagram and Twitter at @authenticseeds.

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