For the final article in this series, I’m going to expand on the athlete metaphor to illustrate the vital importance that leadership support plays to ensure optimal athlete and team performance over long, arduous initiatives.
There are few things tougher than the Comrades ultra marathon. The Comrades Marathon is by far the largest and most prestigious ultra marathon in the world. Every year, approximately 20,000 aspirant runners aim to complete 90 very hilly kilometres (56 miles) between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in under 12 hours. If you achieve a Top 10 finish at Comrades, you earn a coveted Gold medal.
The graph below shows every male Gold medal winner by ethnicity since the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1994. As you can see, black South African men very quickly dominated the medal table after democracy. Although this is bad new or melanin-challenged runners like myself (according to the Americans we can’t jump and this data shows we’re not great ultra marathon runners either), this is not a surprising graph as it represents the demographics of South Africa.
The next graph is exactly the same information but for female Gold medal winners. The data paints a very different and rather depressing picture. Even rarer than a white South African man winning Gold at Comrades is a black South African female achieving the same feat. At the 2022 event, Galaletseng Mekoe became just the third black South African lady to win Gold. It’s also remarkable that no female from another African country has ever won Gold.
My hypothesis (which I’ve ‘validated’ in discussions with elite female ultra runners) is that it takes a lot more than talent and hard work to be a successful ultra marathon runner. When you are running over 200 kilometres a week you need a support structure for coaching, diet, rest, injury prevention and medical care. Sadly, the additional support that is required for a talented female athlete to realise her potential is not available to most South African (or African) women.
Most organisations do not have a talent problem – there are tons of talented female runners in South Africa* – they have a talent enablement problem. The role of leaders in an agile organisation is to provide the support structure to ensure that the talent of their athletes is realised.
* The demographics of a the top ten females at a major 10k race or half marathon is very different. As distance increases, the number of female athletes from marginalised groups decreases highlighting that support (in addition to ability and hard work) are required to achieve one’s potential.
A Photo Finish
One last running metaphor to conclude this topic. Compare the two photographic scenarios below.
One the left you have the Bekker brothers, Desmond and Jan Juan, captured just over 80 miles into the Washie 100 miler (the oldest asphalt 100 miler in the world). They’ve run through the night and are now into the heat of the next day. They are both completely exhausted – Desmond is nursing his nauseous younger brother through his maiden 100 miler. Life is tough and it is at this stage of the race when the risk of ‘bailing’ is greatest. The other two people in the photo are their seconding team who are alternating holding the umbrella to provide some temporary respite from the blistering sun. The seconders don’t get a medal, they wouldn’t even get any public acknowledgement were it not for this chance photo. However, they are doing everything in their power to ensure that their athletes cross the finish line in Buffalo City (which both brothers eventually did in just under 23 hours).
On the right you have an infamous series of photos from the 1967 Boston Marathon. The lady in picture is Kathrine Switzer. At this time women were not allowed to run marathons because the men who ran the sport deemed it ‘physiologically incapable’ for females to complete a marathon (despite the fact that several women had run marathons unofficially without their uteruses falling out). Kathrine Switzer had in fact managed to get a legitimate entry through her running club via a loophole in the race rules.
The rather irate man in black is Boston Marathon race director Jock Semple. After getting wind that a woman had the audacity to run his race, he got into his car and hunted her down on the course. In the photo series, he is trying to physically rip the race numbers off Kathrine Switzer’s back. Fortunately the runners around Kathrine Switzer bumped Jock Semple out of the way and she went on to finish the race in a respectable time of 4h20.
I believe that these two scenarios demonstrate the extremes of two contrasting leadership styles: Supportive, facilitative leadership where I do everything in my power to help my athletes achieve versus command and control punitive ‘obey the Fuhrer’ management.
Referring back to the photographic scenarios again, I have three questions to leave you with:
- Which type of leader would you prefer to work for?
- Which type of leader would you like to be?
- On a scale of ‘1 – Ripping the race numbers off our backs’ to ’10 – Running alongside us holding an umbrella’ how would your own athletes rate your leadership style?
There is a bit more to the Kathrine Switzer story. After becoming the first legitimate female finisher at Boston you would have hoped that the powers that be would have seen that women can actually run marathons and changed the rules. Unfortunately, hell hath no fury like a man proven wrong. They did change the rules but in the other direction, removing the loophole that allowed Switzer to get a legitimate race number and adding additional regulations that any female running the marathon would be banned from competing in all athletics events for life. Boston Marathon did eventually allow women to run in their race in 1972, 5 years after Switzer crossed the finish line.
On the other hand, Jock Semple ended up being a great example of the growth mindset – and that all leaders can change their ways. Semple did a 180-degree turnaround on women’s participation in endurance events and he and Kathrine Switzer eventually became close friends, to the extent that Switzer visited Semple on his deathbed.
Kathrine Switzer would go on to win the 1974 New York Marathon and achieved her personal best over the distance at the 1975 Boston Marathon with a second-place 2:51:37 finish. She has received widespread acknowledge for her role in empowering women and was still running marathons 50 years after the 1967 Jock block.
This is the third in a trilogy of articles covering athletes and agile leadership. Look out for part one (Athletes or Developers? What’s the Optimal Ratio of Doers vs. Support Staff in an Agile Organisation?) and part two (Three Hard Questions for Agile Leaders)Follow Running Mann: