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Leadership Lessons Learned From My Ironman

Leadership Lessons Learned from My Ironman
Guest Blogger: Kelli Moretter-Bue
On September 10th, I completed the Ironman Madison, a triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim through a crowded lake, 112 miles of rollercoaster cycling, and concluding with a silly little marathon, or 26.2 miles of running. Full transparency—It was one of the most challenging days of my life. I’ve done other endurance events but the Ironman was the most difficult competition I have ever participated in. Training for the actual race was almost more arduous than the race itself!  For months, I trained day in and day out. I had double workouts on single days, weekends packed with HOURS of biking and running, and SOOO many early morning alarms in the dark that I started to feel like some sort of night vigilante (but a tired one at that).
As I reflect on the entire experience, I realize the invaluable lessons I learned not just about myself but my roles as a mom, wife, athlete, leader, and president of a company. Reflecting now, I am most surprised by the lessons in leadership I learned in the hardest of ways—nothing of which is new or radical but much more authentic and meaningful, all of which were discovered by the little failures and successes along my Ironman Journey.

  1. Be purposeful. You cannot complete an Ironman without proper preparation. As a time-crunched athlete, every single workout had to have a purpose. If it didn’t serve a specific purpose then it wasn’t on my training plan. I quickly learned that this needs to be carried over into my workday. Every meeting, conference call, sales pitch and even water cooler conversation had to count. My lesson: know the “why” in what you do so you can be purposeful in how you do it.
  2. Little things matter. I’ll admit I struggled at the end of my Ironman. My goal was out of reach, but this small “failure” taught me something great.  The very long, painful marathon slog (and brief nap midway through!) was a result of my inattention to the little things in training. My coach reiterated time and time again that nutrition is the 4th sport of triathlon and urged me to practice my nutrition plan each weekend on my long rides and runs.  Instead, I stopped at gas stations to get Cokes and chips rather than sticking to my boring, healthy fuels. On race day, I stuck to my plan (yay!) but my plan sucked!. Who knew?!  Well, I SHOULD have known that months before the race. I should have tweaked and tried, and worked and tested and finally perfected it, but I didn’t. The little things turned out to be BIG things and those extra chips, sodas, and snacks mustered (no pun intended) the last laugh. Lesson learned. Paying attention to detail will catch up with you – either in a positive or a negative way.  My lesson: pay attention to the interests and real needs of your clients and your staff. Don’t wing it.  Do what you say, even the small stuff.
  3. Make friends with feedback. Feedback can be HARD! I received a lot of feedback from my coach as I had to log every workout. She studied how many yards I swam, the wattage I pushed on the bike, the pace of pick-ups in my run and how my heart rate responded to effort level.  Running and biking are my evident strengths, but swimming—not so much.  I didn’t grow up on a swim team or spend hours on the lake in the summer.  My swim coach told me I needed to learn a two-beat kick because my legs and arms were not working together properly and it was making me very inefficient (aka SLOW) in the water.  She taught me the technique and rhythm—it didn’t matter.  I got slower.  But I didn’t’ quit. I kept at it. Over, and over and over, until finally, I got it!  Now, I can’t imagine swimming any other way.  If you truly want to improve, you need honest feedback. Sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s brutal, but at the end of the day listening to feedback and learning from it will make you better. Ultimately, relentless improvement is what all goal-driven athletes and leaders desire. My lesson: seek out and learn from feedback.
  4. Don’t compare yourself to others. It would have been easy to get caught up in the training that other athletes were doing to prepare. Many trained longer and had more experience. I had to trust my coach and listen to the signs from my body for when I could push through or when I needed to rest. These same lessons apply in leadership. It is good to learn from others but it is incredibly important to be yourself.  Great leaders do not get caught in the trap of “keeping up with the Joneses”. If you are not authentic, people will sniff that out in a second and trust will be jeopardized. My lesson: learn but don’t copy.
  5. Motivation and inspiration are not enough! Discipline—that dreadful, boring word—is what matters.  Motivation and inspiration ebb and flow but the discipline to execute on a daily basis will make you successful.  The last 4-6 weeks of training were absolutely brutal.  I loved it…and hated it.  Yes, I was tired physically but mentally I was utterly exhausted.  All the motivation and inspiration I had when I registered for the race had been used up in my 4:15 wake up calls, two-a-day workouts, clumpy protein shakes and motivational videos.  It was only the discipline to continue my routine that kept me going.   My lesson: cultivate and commit to discipline because enthusiasm is a feeling that is guaranteed to wane.
  6. It’s your tribe, stupid! The most important lesson I learned while training was to rely on and be grateful for my tribe. I was gone many Saturday mornings for hours on the bike, followed by long runs. After finishing my workout, I was hungry and just a touch tired. My husband, kids, and friends supported me throughout my training, embracing the lack of “fun” in my schedule and my overall state of fatigue the last few months going into the race. When I crossed that finish line, it was my tribe I was looking for. Yes, the training got me to that beautiful white line but my tribe got me through the training. None of it would have happened without my support crew. My most important lesson: don’t get so caught up in individual accomplishments and goals that you forget about those around you paving the path to getting there in the first place.

My Ironman training and the race itself were unforgettable. The lessons I learned go far beyond these. Humans are an amazing species, capable of doing more than we believe we can. Test the limits; set big, hairy, audacious goals and see how far you can go. Learn invaluable lessons from successes and failures along the way. Most importantly, enjoy the journey of getting there.


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