Is everyone a pro at their job or hobby? In the world of triathlon, the answer is a resounding “no.” In a 2016 USA Triathlon Member Survey, 95% of the over 12,000 respondents claimed to be “age group” athletes – in other words, non-professionals. These are everyday people who have jobs, families, and other interests. They are passionate about the sport, dedicating long hours to their training, nutrition, and physical wellness. They are willing to sacrifice much, including sleep, family time, and important social functions, for the love of the sport. I have friends who jokingly (I think) remind me every time I see them that I missed their 2015 wedding because I was competing in an Ironman race 400 miles away the following day.
What about at work? Are all leaders pros, or are they closer to those age-groupers? Most leaders I know face an ongoing multitude of pressures, deadlines, and deliverables. They crank out project information early in the morning, responding to emails until their head hits the pillow. They miss family dinners and postpone vacations. Surely that must make them better than average?
The bad news is that most leaders are probably closer to those age-groupers than the pros. Assuming the statistical realities of a normal distribution apply to leadership effectiveness, only about 16% of leaders perform one standard deviation above the mean. Like triathlon age groupers, most leaders (about 68%) fall in the “average” range. However, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority tells us that most leaders are likely to rate themselves a 7 out of 10 on effectiveness. This may explain why many leaders have difficulty receiving feedback from key stakeholders: When others’ ratings are closer to average than superior, they feel discouraged, angry, or even worried that they are in the wrong job or the wrong company. In other words, the realities of being an “age grouper” in leadership are challenging when you might be holding onto visions of being a pro.
The picture on the right, taken from Development Decisions International’s 2021 Global Leadership Forecast, shows the difference between leader’s self-ratings versus HR’s ratings on the quality of their leadership from 2011-2020. Leaders felt they were working harder than ever during the pandemic while also showing empathy and connecting with their teams. They thought this meant they were leading better, but in the eyes of others, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Leaders, this isn’t meant to break your spirit, but instead to use these realities to reframe your current situation and drive toward real leadership growth. Here are some strategies from average triathletes to help you build truly “better than average” leadership:
- Remember the big picture. There is an old joke in Ironman racing, “What do they call the last person to cross the finish line at an Ironman race? An Ironman!” In other words, the person who finishes last still wins the same finisher medal as the venerable pro triathlete Daniela Ryf. The number of humans who complete an Ironman race is estimated to be .01%; getting across the finish line is an impressive human feat, irrespective of finishing time.
The same is true for leadership. Only 10-20% of workers in your organization are likely in leadership roles, so you are already at a starting line most people do not have the skill or the will to achieve. Push yourself toward continuous improvement while recognizing that the end game may not be “pro” status but a more effective, powerful you.
- Seek awareness to build opportunity. Endurance athletes regularly assess their landscape to inform their training, asking themselves these questions: What are my goals for this race? How is it different from my last race? What do I need to adjust or change to finish stronger, faster, or healthier? Without thorough assessments, athletes are likely to train without focus (often putting in what is known as junk miles) and leave them woefully unprepared for what they face on their next race day.
As a leader, how aware are you of the changing demands of your leadership landscape? When did you last do a thorough assessment of the needs of your team, your customers, or your peers? If you have new responsibilities, what is needed from you as a leader now? How does it differ from your previous leadership roles? Take note of what changes you need to make and set specific action steps toward focused growth. Work with a coach, boss, or a peer group to increase clarity and accountability. Setting leadership growth goals that “make sense” but are not directly related to your business or team goals can be the equivalent of running junk miles; you will not be optimizing your effort.
- Articulate and connect with your “why.” Training for an Ironman is not for the faint of heart: along with the dedication and sacrifice comes many dark training moments. There are cold and windy 100km bike rides, choppy open water swims, and muscle cramps halfway through 18 mile runs. What keeps the average person training through such adversity is a deep connection with what truly matters to them. For some, it is overcoming obesity or reaching new physical gains after cancer. For others, it is raising money for worthy causes. Whatever the “why,” it becomes the driving force in those dark hours when giving up is incredibly tempting.
Leaders, do you know why you lead? How does it connect with what truly matters to you? Sit down and write out your “why.” Perhaps you lead because you have a deep desire to build success in future generations. Maybe you lead because you are strongly service-oriented as a manifestation of your faith practice. Take the time to find a deep connection with that about which you care most. Because in the dark days of a global pandemic or changing business priorities, when you are exhausted from working around the clock, these things will keep you on course. External priorities like promotion, title, or more money – just like a medal at the end of a triathlon – will not keep gas in your tank when you are exhausted. Fear (losing your job or not finishing a race) may move you along, but it will not inspire you to dig in and push yourself for better. Keep your “why” close in your mind so you can honor it when it matters most.
- Get feedback – often. Most triathletes wouldn’t think of going on so much as a walk without a feedback device, either a smartwatch or phone. Those who are serious about improving their race performance often take things even further, subscribing to online training plans, joining triathlon clubs, or hiring a triathlon-specific training coach. These tools help them from falling pretty to the “better than average” mentality, which neither provides specific enough feedback for improvement nor an appreciation of gains made to inspire and motivate.
Leaders, from whom do you seek feedback? How regularly? As noted earlier, the absence of ongoing feedback can make punctuated feedback (like stakeholder input) unnecessarily painful. Setting up a regular cadence for feedback is essential, but you must first start with your goals for it. Saying “I want feedback to get better as a leader” is like a runner saying, “I want to know my heart rate so that I will be a better runner.” The relationship between those two things is nonspecific and non-instructive. Instead, make your goal for feedback explicit: “I want to share my ideas more frequently in high-level meetings. Therefore, I will ask my peer, Ajad, to provide me with feedback just after our weekly Commercial Operations meetings to see if I am improving in this area.” Once you have clear goals, set up a sensible and predictable feedback cadence. That way, you are neither overwhelmed nor surprised by it, and you avoid the illusion of “better than average.”
Not all age-group athletes will become pro athletes, and not all leaders will be superstar CEOs. But by understanding your motivators, remaining focused, pushing yourself where and when it matters, and getting regular feedback, you can grow your leadership year after year. Most leaders will think they are better than average, but some will actually become “better than average” – why not make sure it is you?