Marathons and Motivation: How Great Leaders Inspire Teams

If you’ve ever run, or watched someone run, a marathon, you’ve seen spectators with some creative signs. These cardboard quips range from the amusing (“Worst Parade Ever”) to the inspiring (“There will be day when you won’t be able to run a marathon. Today is not that day”) to the downright cruel (“You’re almost there!” Posted at Mile 4).


One of the most creative ones I’ve seen read: “If Pheidippides had died here, you’d be done now!” (Pheidippides is the ancient soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians, then promptly collapsed and died.)


The truth is: different runners respond to different types of motivation. The same is true for individual members on a team. In their article Rethinking Leadership: The Power of Purpose, Matt Norquist and Mark Hannum say the purpose driven leader “Provides hope and inspiration for the future and directs energy toward a bold vision.”


The first part of this process then, is to define and articulate that bold vision. Thriving teams can explain with perfect clarity where they are headed and why. Let’s be clear: there is a difference between a stated goal and a compelling vision. I remember a season where, as a team member, I was struggling to find the momentum, the passion I wanted to bring my full self to a particular project. I asked my manager, “What’s our WHY? What’s our imagined future state? If everyone executes, what does the destination look like?” The manager never offered anything captivating; the implied answer was: “We ship more units.”


It’s fine for the quarterly goal to be “more.” But “more” is not a vision. Holding the status quo with incrementally higher profits may get employees to show up, but it doesn’t capture their imaginations. If your executive team cannot clearly define their (in the words of Norquist and Hannum) “personal WHY” and “organizational WHAT FOR,” it’s time to call an off-site and start wrestling these down.


Once that vision is in place, leaders must provide the necessary hope to transcend inevitable setbacks. A few years ago, I saw a group of high school runners in the L.A. marathon. They were from a group called Students Run L. A.; they all ran in matching neon green jerseys. Around mile 25, one of these runners stops, sits down in the middle of San Vincente Boulevard and starts to weep. The pain is too intense. The obstacles too many. After coming so close to the goal, this is where his run will end.


Three of his teammates deliberate for a moment. They are still strong enough to finish, but they won’t go on without him. They started together. They need to finish together. So, while one friend picks their ailing comrade up by both ankles, the other two support him by his shoulders and they shuffle down the street. I’ll never forget this image.


The teammates simply willed him to finish. And they did. Teams require hope on worthy endeavors. Hope says, “What we’re doing is worth finishing well. It may take us longer than we anticipated and it won’t be without wrinkles, but we’ll finish and we’ll finish together. The department, the firm and maybe even the industry or the city will be better because of what we accomplish.”


The English word “inspire” comes from the Latin “in” (into) and “spirare” (to breathe). To inspire then, is to “breathe into” another. What are you breathing into your team these days? Have you ever watched one of those first responder shows where someone is administering CPR? The person giving CPR is breathing oxygen into the person who can’t do it for themselves. Leadership CPR happens when leaders generate the hope, tenacity, drive and sense of expectancy that teams need to survive a particular challenge or season.


Do you have a bold vision for the future?

Does the team know what it is?

Do you have a plan to inspire them along the way?


You could start with a cardboard sign. Just don’t mention Pheidippides.


To read the full article: “Rethinking Leadership: The Power of Purpose,” click here:

Craig Custance