Leadership and the super storm

It’s been a rough two weeks for New Yorkers, between Super Storm Sandy and last week’s poorly timed Nor’easter it is easy to see how tempers are fraying in the City that never sleeps. As I have watched (and felt) both storms pound the City, the coach in me has been fascinated by peoples’ reactions. We saw amazing acts of generosity from unexpected corners (including the biker gang first on the scene in Staten Island handing out supplies to displaced residents), and amazing feats of resilience as owners of storm ravaged homes sorted through the wreckage whilst maintaining a sense of hope. But the reactions that intrigued me most centered squarely on the New York City Marathon.

As most of my clients and colleagues know I’m an avid runner, and I consider me and my running buddies to be less stressed, more motivated, stronger leaders and better at bouncing back from adversity than non-runners. The research agrees; medical and management texts alike extoll the virtues of goal oriented sports like running in helping executives manage extreme stress and lead teams. I have seen the direct benefits of sports training as a management technique in my own practice- the clients I work with who are committed sports people are able to step back, reflect and make good decisions in high pressure situations. They are also able to manage their own reactions and marshal their teams in turbulent times.

And with this background in mind I was keen to see the reactions of the race organizers as they wrangled with the tough management dilemma of postponing one of the most important dates on the international running calendar or going ahead in the face of growing opposition. I was also intrigued to see the reactions of elite athletes- would they support a cancellation, or speak out against it- and what would their reactions tell us about their personal leadership approach? The research would have us expect that Mary Wittenberg, CEO of New York Road Runners and former competitive runner, and the elite athletes set to participate would rise to the occasion, lead with clarity and find a methodical, balanced and organized resolution. What we saw in reality was more complex; in the week leading up to the event we saw Wittenberg and Mayor Bloomberg leading by doing, showing their authority and expert insight by maintaining that the race would be run. Then, in response we saw leadership by force- as New Yorkers and the running community voiced their anger with the decision to hold the race. Eventually, this criticism created the worst case scenario for any CEO facing a deep management dilemma; a poorly communicated 11th hour cancellation, millions in lost revenue, a strong organizational brand negatively dented and calls for the resignation of the CEO.

Next we saw the various responses of those impacted, with runners and organizers oscillating between deeply inspiring displays of personal leadership and at the other end of the spectrum, a lack of emotional intelligence. Mary Wittenberg drew intense criticism as she described the decision to cancel as “crushing” and “really difficult”. The elite American runner, Meb Keflezighi who won the New York Marathon in 2009, drew praise for his reaction, pointing out that although he had trained hard his disappointment paled in comparison to the challenges storm survivors were facing. He also called on his fans to contribute what they could to relief efforts. Then, we saw packs of recreational runners finding the best of both worlds as they ran around Staten Island on Marathon Sunday helping residents whilst experiencing the race course.

So what do these reactions tell us? Well, regardless of our position, our background and the things we do to develop personally and professionally, it’s exceptionally hard to see a high stakes management decision from every possible angle. We also know that when we are facing opposition it’s hard to step back and think about what our actions might signify to others about our personal leadership credo.

Ultimately on marathon Sunday I took part in a benefit for those worst hit by the hurricane, and as I helped out I thought about the runners who decided to volunteer that day in Staten Island. Here they were in the best possible shape of their lives, able to tap into the physical and mental endurance that months of marathon training had instilled in them to make a huge difference in the lives of people who needed it most. To my mind, that’s the definition of leadership- to be able to put your needs behind those of others, to be nimble enough to change course after months and months of focusing in a particular direction and to be able to reposition your thinking to use your strongest skills to best affect in a crisis. For those runners, I can’t help but wonder if it created a sense of achievement and impact far greater than the crossing of any finish line could have.