We weren’t very good as a team, but we had two individuals who were extraordinary runners, and they regularly took first and second place at our cross country meets. For one of our meets I didn’t compete due to a minor injury. It turns out this injury was something of a “twist of fate” as it gave me the opportunity to actually see Fred and Mark, our star runners, finish a race and teach me the first of two lessons about performance leadership:

Lesson 1: Performance excellence can create the illusion of leadership – you have to understand the “how” beneath performance to tell the difference

As I watched on, Fred and Mark crossed the finish line first and second, respectively, and with impressive times. Even more impressive was the way they finished. What I saw that day is not only stamped in my memory, it relates to many subsequent “races” I’ve been in or witnessed since then.

Here’s a little more of my story in support of Leadership Lesson 1:

Fred was our great star and he always finished first in our practices and races. He held the record time for our school and won the state competition. Mark was nearly as good, and we counted on him to take second place leading the rest of us, and our opponents’ runners, to the finish line. If this was all you knew about Fred and Mark, you might consider them to be roughly equal in terms of their running performance. But as you also may suspect, you’d be wrong. Mark was an altogether different kind of runner.

Unlike the rest of us who dutifully trained under the direction of Coach Dan, Mark never practiced. In fact, Mark wasn’t even on the cross country team except for the days of our races. Coach Dan would simply “tap” him on race day, and for reasons the rest of us never knew, (our guess was that it had to do with PE credits) Mark would just show up at the starting line and run. He was remarkable for his “fresh off the couch” ability to regularly finish second behind “Fast Freddy.” But I didn’t know how he did it until I had the opportunity to see him finish the race that day I didn’t run.

The next days’ newspaper would report that Fred and Mark had finished first and second, yet their excellence still couldn’t carry the home team to victory. Here, the article would go on, was the reliable, “dynamic duo of running talent.” Sure, they were dynamic alright, but based on my witness to their performance, they certainly were no “duo of running talent.” They weren’t the same, not even close.

Here’s what I actually saw that the paper didn’t get:

Crossing the finish line first, and once again breaking the school record, Fred ran as he did from the start, his pace graceful and his face relaxed, he wasn’t even sweating. Then came Mark. Unlike Fred, who looked as if he were running through daisy fields in some halcyon dream, Mark looked like he was about to be run down by a bear. His stride was broken, his mouth wide open gasping for air as he grasped his stomach. Immediately after crossing the finish line, Mark bent over and yaked. (This wasn’t a one-time event for him as I would later learn.)

What could possibly explain the striking contrast in their finish? The “picture” would lead to very different assumptions regarding where they finished – certainly not close to each other. I don’t know for sure, but I have a pretty good guess now that the way they finished didn’t have to do with their shoes.

Fred was the prototypical elite runner. He was both strong and enduring. Mark, on the other hand, was just enduring. Fred ran without strain. Mark ran in denial of pain.

So, what’s this got to do with work?

Like the differences between Fred and Mark from my high school cross country team, I’ve also observed two types of people at work: Some, like Fred, excel by virtue of performance competence, others, like Mark, merely “finish well” by means of sheer grit. In terms of results, the two are of similar measure, but underneath, these two types are made of different stuff.

Taking a purely practical view as employer, you might ask what difference this really makes, they both get outstanding results.

Not so fast.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, cross country is a team sport. Great as Fred and Mark were, they didn’t make the team any better – I think they made us worse. Fred made races seem easy and Mark made them seem near deadly. Neither example served to motivate the rest of us. We were a team only on paper – and one that always lost.

But that’s not where the story ends.

The next year we got a new coach, Coach Mike, and he was as different from Coach Dan as Mark was from Fred, both of whom left the team – Fred by way of graduation and Mark by absence of conscription. Despite the loss of these two great individuals from the lineup, our team as a whole began to get good. In fact, within two years’ time we won our league’s championship tournament. It didn’t have anything to do with the strength of any one or two individuals on the team. It had to do with our coach. More specifically, it had to do Coach Mike and WHO he was as a person. It only helped that he could run.

What was the difference between Coach Dan and Coach Mike?

My first coach, Coach Dan, used to send us out for practice on a circular route of roads around school. But this low (no?) involvement coaching style began to change when he discovered that some of the team (except Fred and me, ahem) were taking short cuts. So he put us in the team van, drove straight away from school and dropped us off seven miles out. When a concerned whistleblower (i.e., parent) reported some of us for hitchhiking, Coach Dan doubled went into dragnet mode trailing us like a homecoming chaperone in that van as he chain-smoked his way through a pack of Marlboros. But hey, he wasn’t all “police state” – he did occasionally offer smokes to the rest of us. (This was Richmond, VA after all, home of Phillip Morris.)

When Coach Mike took over from Coach Dan (supposedly for medical reasons) things got worse at “practice.” Instead of supervising us from the van, Coach Mike actually ran with us. We didn’t like him from the start. And we not-too-secretly conspired to get a new coach. But coach Mike didn’t quit. It was us who quit. We quit trying to cut corners and hide behind others’ coattails.

In time, we began to accept Coach Mike’s “running with the pack” style of coaching. On the rare day that Coach Mike cancelled practice for something silly like final exams, we would STILL run full a full ten or more miles without him. We wanted to keep up with Coach Mike, who was a champion runner in college, and eventually we could. (Now I know he was holding back.) We began to win meets and even tournaments. And unlike Fred or Mark, none of us was truly exceptional. Which brings me to my second leadership lesson from my high school cross country team:

Lesson 2: Great coaches have no favorites, they run with the “middle of the pack.”

To his credit, Coach Dan was a great recruiter who could source scarce talent – he did identify and enlist Mark from the school hallway. But Mark never joined the team. And the team never won meets, much less tournaments.

Coach Mike, on the other hand, was a great leader who inspired his team to want to win by his present and personal example. And the team was proud above its individuals.

In their own ways, both Coach Dan and Coach Mike were technically good at their “jobs.” But Coach Dan’s strong recruiting could not make up for his bad example while Coach Mike’s mediocre class of runners were won over – and over won – by his authentic leadership.

Final Lap: In the hectic race of work and life, people don’t win by command or by being in front of others. They win by “running with the pack” and truly being with the people.

In life, work and play, it really is best to, "Be like Mike."

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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