2017-05-17 NBH image blog post_A colleague once said to me, “I stand on your shoulders.”  I replied, “We all are part of a chain of progress that stretches far behind us and will continue long after us.”  This is how I view leadership in general and women’s leadership in particular.

Research by McKinsey, Harvard, Columbia, and myriad other consultancies, think tanks and universities show that organizations with diverse leadership are 35% more likely to have better financial returns.  So, advancing women’s leadership is a vital business imperative.  And, I hope men will share with all your male colleagues why “women in leadership” is not just a women’s issue.

What’s valid for women’s leadership applies to all of us, if we can break out of long-held but untrue and unfair stereotypes about what each sex can achieve. There’s extensive research on the unconscious biases we all have about men and women so even if you believe you are an extremely progressive person, you must be vigilant and self-aware about when you might be letting these assumptions affect your judgment.

So, how can we – women and men – stand on the shoulders of others in this long chain of progress?  When I was young, I believed it was a sprint and we were going to change everything right then and there so I had to run flat out as fast as I possibly could.  As I grew older, I decided it was a marathon and I had to pace myself to sustain my energy for the long-distance haul.  And, then as I grew even older, I realized it’s a relay race.

All of us have only been able to do what we’ve done because of those who worked for progress earlier and passed us the baton. While I may never see the fruition of all I’ve worked towards, I have a sacred obligation to move progress forward, along with others who have advanced it against seemingly impossible odds.  This is especially true now when we see backlash in many parts of the world and in many sectors: business, technology, academia, sports, etc.

I recently spoke to people from the world of football and asked them how athletes train differently for sprints, marathons and relays.  In reviewing this info, I shifted my long-held view of this race analogy as a linear sequence that locks in at different phases of your life.   I realized that rather than a sprint being just for when you’re new to leadership or a marathon only when you’re in the middle of your career or a relay exclusively towards its end, you actually can use each form at every stage throughout your leadership journey.

For a sprint, you must perform at your absolute maximum in a very short period time.  For a marathon, you must develop your endurance and stamina.  In a relay, the race is won in the exchange among team members.  Consider when you really need to be in sprint mode, as we often do when under extreme pressure, while remembering that if you always stay in that mode, you will burn out.  You carry a sense of being constantly overwhelmed and exhaustion also can lead to serious health consequences.

Stretched, pre-tensed fast-twitch muscles will contract more forcefully and rapidly.  To avoid depletion, you must give them a chance to breathe.  The very same is for your “leadership muscles;” you must breathe and refresh.  You may feel that the overwhelming obstacles you must overcome on a daily basis force you to be in that intense state of readiness at all times.  But, you also must give yourself time to nourish yourself, which is vital.  Find what renews you.  There’s a reason they say “put on your own oxygen mask first.”

Similarly, in marathon mode, you may feel like you’ve been slogging along forever trying to resolve the same issue and you must stay at it always.  But, unless you save enough energy for the end of the race, you can get beaten down somewhere at that midway hill.  

I know this from experience because I hit empty tank mode in my early 40s and learned the hard way that I had to take time to renew myself regularly or I never would’ve made it to now in my late 60s with my enthusiasm, energy and passion.  So, seek out time to nurture yourselves, something we’re all told is selfish – and especially women are taught to nurture everyone but themselves. But refueling is a gift to all: you’ll be a happier person and a better leader!  In fact, the two are inextricably connected!

With a relay, you have to be conscious not only of your own pacing but also of the person who will pass to you and the one you’ll pass to, often at an extremely fast pace.  So, learn as much as you can about those you depend on and those who depend on you so you can effectively interact in both directions.  We all know that no matter how strong we may be, we each depend on others to fulfill our obligations.  The “chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

What’s most compelling about a relay – especially a Ragnar covering 200 miles over several days– is that newcomers and seasoned old timers all experience the camaraderie and support of each other: everyone wins.  There’s a wonderful celebratory spirit in completing tasks supporting each other!  The physiological training is similar to a classic long-distance race but far greater spans can be covered in a way not possible for any individual to achieve.  I hope at some point in your life you’ve had a taste of how great it is to be encouraged and supported: don’t forget that.

Regardless of which mode serves you best at each moment, none of this is not about “whining about how bad things are.”  It’s looking reality straight in the face and making conscious choices about what leadership style you’ll use to manage yourself and others.   So, when you decide to sprint, do it only for short spurts of time or risk burn-out; when you’re in a marathon, preserve your energy or you’ll exhaust before completion; and when you’re in a relay – which you kind of always are – you’ll be able to endure it better, as you go along, if you celebrate success – yours and that of your team members.

I delight at the prospect of what each of you can attain and I’m cheering all of you on!  I welcome your comments on how this race metaphor may help you achieve your goals.


This post by Nadine Hack, CEO beCause Global Consulting, was developed from a talk she gave at UEFA Women in Football Leadership Programme.  You also can see part of it on YouTube.

{ 26 comments… add one }

  • colette Phillips May 17, 2017, 8:18 pm

    This Blog is Spot On! I loved this analog. ” For a sprint, you must perform at your absolute maximum in a very short period time. For a marathon, you must develop your endurance and stamina.”

    • Nadine B. Hack May 18, 2017, 8:37 am

      Thanks, Colette. You have been the model of mastering all forms: sprint, marathon and relay! It’s an honor to race alongside you.

  • Barbara Kimmel May 18, 2017, 12:36 pm

    The chain is only as strong as the weakest link… Imagine how different the world would be if every individual focused on keeping their own link strong and the collective chain well greased.

    • Nadine B. Hack May 18, 2017, 12:53 pm

      Yes, Barbara, it’s always our personal responsibility to step up to the challenge before asking any one else to do the same!

  • Bob Dunn May 18, 2017, 2:03 pm

    Your comments are thoughtful, important and well expressed. In my experience, “self nurturing” is difficult because we grow up believing that we focus on ourselves, we’re being “selfish.” This doesn’t take into account the self care that’s needed to be more loving to others as leaders, and in our personal lives. I think there’s also a way in which embracing diversity requires us to understand that none of us knows enough. It calls on us to embrace our own limitations and self assurance. Too often, what we think we know with certainty is the obstacle to accessing the wisdom that leads to better, more sustainable outcomes.

    • Nadine B. Hack May 18, 2017, 4:45 pm

      Your wisdom, Bob, as always is boundless! I hope that you (and me) really heed our own advice! Hugs

  • Cortney May 18, 2017, 4:44 pm

    I hope this makes it into your book, Nadine!
    So many of us are blessed to stand on your impressive shoulders, and yet it’s empowering to think of it as different race forms and to recognize our own sacred role in passing on the baton to others. Thank you for yet another thought-provoking piece. Love, -Cortney

    • Nadine B. Hack May 18, 2017, 4:46 pm

      I will stand on your shoulders, Cortney, when I write my book and I will rely on your wise counsel then! xo

  • Andrea Learned May 18, 2017, 4:47 pm

    This is your point that really hits me this year – “newcomers and seasoned old timers all experience the camaraderie and support of each other: everyone wins.” In my Pro Bono work for an amazing Seattle arts nonprofit that happens to be a global radio station (KEXP), I’ve been amazed by the camaraderie among the staff, but, even more… I have witnessed how the mutual support among staff and donors and volunteers just comes together and feels like “home” at tough times and in celebrations. What I get by participating, and helping them lead with their incredible social impact, feels exponentially rewarding. Interestingly, as per your point, they do form a Ragnar team every year – mix of staff and volunteers. They lead by example in all they do, and it’s because they do the sprints and the relays, with big smiles and high fives. Thanks for laying it out this way, Nadine.

    • Nadine B. Hack May 18, 2017, 4:53 pm

      Andrea – it’s always in our connectedness – the South African concept of Ubuntu that “I am a human being through my relationships with others” – that we are most nourished. I’m so glad that your work with KEXP has given you that wonderful sense of camaraderie!

  • Nina Streich May 18, 2017, 6:32 pm

    The idea of the relay really rings true to me. Our strength in working for social change is in collaboration, in collectivity, in camaraderie. It is indeed a marathon and we need the support of others – and to support others – for the race to continue beyond our legs in it. With the non-profit I founded almost fifteen years ago, I’ve been struggling to develop leadership to grow the organization beyond my own involvement. Succession planning… When it’s in place, I will really feel like I’ve built something that can have continuing impact. Until it is in place, I feel like there’s still a distance to go.

    • Nadine B. Hack May 19, 2017, 8:00 am

      Nina – you’re already ahead of the curve in understanding that you must develop a succession plan to ensure the future of the Global Peace Film Festival as so many founder-led organizations don’t outlast their founder. As your work is so vital, I hope you reach the point of knowing it is sustainable.

      • Nina Streich May 19, 2017, 2:20 pm

        Thanks Nadine! So true. And I get resistance – even from my board – because people want to defer to me. “It’s your vision,” they say… It’s really hard to get away from. And from my point of view, I have to encourage and support people who come up with ideas that I may not agree with and demonstrate that I’m willing to act on those ideas, if the board supports them.

        • Nadine B. Hack May 19, 2017, 2:26 pm

          Stick to your instincts on this, Nina. The powerful mission that evolved from your amazing vision deserves to live on. Others can carry it forward!

  • Letty Cottin Pogrebin May 18, 2017, 7:28 pm

    Nadine, I like your riff on the sprint / marathon / relay race metaphor. Food for thought — and action.

  • Mary Stelletello May 19, 2017, 5:54 am

    I use sports analogies all the time. Love this one! Thanks for pulling it together for the next handoff!

    • Nadine B. Hack May 19, 2017, 7:55 am

      Mary – I’m glad that you find my analogy useful for your coaching and consulting work with Vista Global and I wish you every success!

  • David Hain May 19, 2017, 12:48 pm

    Great analogy, Nadine! And with the relay, especially, it’s not necessarily the fastest team who wins, but the one that gets the baton round quickest. Normally a pay-off for long-term investment in self and other awareness and collaboration!

    • Nadine B. Hack May 19, 2017, 1:13 pm

      You’re absolutely right, David, about the collaboration required for a relay. And, as I write, “we’re kind of always in a relay” as we’re always part of a long chain of leadership.

  • David Connor May 22, 2017, 11:43 am

    Takes me back to my days in football!

    It’s only recently I took the lessons I was sharing with both grassroots and elite athletes on board myself. I had to leave the world of professional football after ‘sprinting’ far too hard for far too long.

    I can vividly remember racing across my city, the country, and the world flip-flopping between leading an amazingly fertile and empowering community programme at Everton Football Club and managing the England Amputee football squad, with little to no sleep every single day. I learnt the lesson about self-appreciation the hard way. It is even more embarrassing when I realised I had been repeatedly ensuring everybody in the multiple teams around me did exactly what I was not doing.

    I am by nature a sprinter in every way, but I make conscious decisions whenever possible (and however uncomfortable) to improve my endurance skills physically and mentally with stupid ideas like my first ironman triathlon last year, but those physical lessons have vastly improved my overall leadership abilities back in the workplace – and also for my son.

    The key is identifying what leadership style is required and precisely when to adapt.

    • Nadine B. Hack May 22, 2017, 12:12 pm

      David – I’m struck by your self-acknowledgment that you were going “with little to no sleep every single day” despite advising your athletes to do opposite. Perhaps you’ve followed how Arianna Huffington has become a “sleep champion” after collapsing in cumulative exhaustion! We don’t have to reach that point of total depletion before nourishing ourselves so we can care for our personal and professional lives. If interested, see http://ariannahuffington.com/books/the-sleep-revolution-tr/the-sleep-revolution-hc

  • Madelon Evers May 28, 2017, 4:47 pm

    Nadine, I enjoy your thoughtfulness and the generosity you inspire by being a role model of it yourself.
    And I was musing on your question, “how can we – women and men – stand on the shoulders of others in this long chain of progress?” After 30 years in business, I have learned that an important kind of “progress” in terms of responsible leadership — for both men and women — is knowing how to let go of our innate over-achiever mode of leading and our unquestioned need to make everything progress bigger, faster, more…. Real progress is helping others develop the courage to stop, to rest, to feel again, to listen. Really listen: what is the world asking of us at this time? What does the world really need now? Is a marathon — or any kind of running around at all — really the answer? Why do we never question this? Why is the value of resting, and allowing the people and the fragile environment in which we live, to rest, recharge, regenerate, so completely undervalued? Is Winter not the entire reason why a Spring is possible?
    My experience as an executive coach is that depletion happens mostly because we do not dare question the mode of thinking that causes this depletion. Might we help each other learn not just to climb but also, just as importantly, to slow down, to sit — to rest on one another’s shoulders perhaps — so we can learn to perceive what is not possible to feel or hear or see or understand if we keep running around and climbing and running some more. I would offer that we can rediscover all that we need to know right now, together, if we dare to simply sit down, quietly, next to each other, in a circle. All men and women together at the same shoulder height. Across all generations, face to face with our elders, our children, our grandchildren. And really listen. I imagine that the spontaneous knowing and co-creation that would happen then would be pretty amazing.

    • Nadine B. Hack May 29, 2017, 10:49 am

      Madelon – I SO agree with you about the “courage to stop, to rest, to feel again, to listen” vs. always needing to push forward. It’s why I wrote: “So, seek out time to nurture yourselves, something we’re all told is selfish – and especially women are taught to nurture everyone but themselves. But refueling is a gift to all: you’ll be a happier person and a better leader! In fact, the two are inextricably connected!” I hope that more people will seek that quiet calm of “being” vs. always “doing.”

  • Ravi Chaudhry June 6, 2017, 10:18 am

    I recall a small passage from ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albon. “In the beginning of life when we are infants, we need others to survive. At the end of life when we are too old, we need others to survive. Here is the secret of life. In between, we need others as well.”

    Leadership is about working for, working with, and working among people. Whether a sprint, a marathon, or a relay, one who lives these values is a true leader.

    Thanks, Nadine, for bringing this essence to light, in a manner you alone can. A brilliant piece with great relevance and a strong take-away. We love you.

    • Nadine B. Hack June 6, 2017, 10:39 am

      Ravi – lovely quote from Mitch Albon! I’ll add it to my “repertoire” as it conveys so simply yet eloquently our inextricable interconnection with others. Thanks!


Leave a Comment