Get board

check.chess

When facing a defining moment you’re either playing checkers or chess. It’s up to you to know which one before making your next move.

Checkers, chess, management, and athleticism are built on the same foundation; success belongs to the visionary strategist who knows their game inside and out, plays regularly, and isn’t afraid to sacrifice along the road to victory.

Our ability to see the future, play out all possible moves, and control the game is rewarded.

Everything we do has consequences, from the food we eat to the friends we make, our decisions at work, and the choices we make during training. I’ve heard too often, “no good deed goes unpunished,” and over time I’ve come to realize that’s not an indictment of being nice, but of not considering potential outcomes.

Sometimes accommodating in the short term comes back to bite you. Think of the employee who legitimately needs the exception to a rule. In the moment there is no reason why not to bend. Later you realize you’ve just done it for one, which puts you in a lose-lose if you ever need to enforce the bent rule. The precedent is set, you must abide or be seen as unfair.

When making decisions like this you must become the chess master who looks the novice in the eye and asks, “are you sure?” Is that the precedent you want to set? What might you give up later? Do you really want to make that move?

My decision in the 2012 Ironman Lake Placid to swim with the pack in the midst of the churning fray of violence had its consequences. When swimming Mirror Lake, there are ropes under the water defining the horizontal swim course. Buoys are connected to the rope, and if you position yourself on either side you do not have to raise your head ever to site the buoys – just follow the rope beneath you.

The price paid for this choice is that hundreds of athletes have made the same one, making your swim violent and combative. Although you’ve chosen the shortest distance, the energy you’ll spend defending yourself is the price you’ll pay.

Check.

Others choose a wider berth from the rope, opting for a smoother swim with frequent sighting of the buoys and longer distance over the exertion of battle.

These choices mirror your moves on the checker and chess boards; strategic decision making with the best information you can gather to ensure success down the road. Perhaps giving up that rook, knight, or even a calm swim will be worth it in the end. Perhaps not.

I recall a checkers moment when every one of my opponent’s pieces was aligned for a quadruple jump. It was the Pat Griskus Olympic Triathlon in 2012 on the run when I saw the move. There were four people ahead of me spread out evenly along the beautiful, shaded Connecticut road, their pace just a bit faster than mine. My path was clear as I sped up and picked off the runners one at a time. At the finish they had helped me achieve a personal best run on the course.

King me.

While both demand forethought and strategy, checkers can be a faster, more impulsive game than chess, which can be a cerebral test of wills. My advice to you is to play these games on a regular basis. Find a partner or even a computer willing to test your skills and put your brain through the paces of some epic checkers and chess battles. Pay attention to how you’re challenged to think, then bring that same thinking into the workplace and your training.

There are times when you can clear the checkerboard in one move, and times when you must ponder unseen outcomes. Train your mind with checkers and chess. When the time comes to choose, you’ll know the difference and exactly what to do.

Check mate.

Bilocation

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Great managers and athletes must be in two places at one time.

As athletes and leaders we must simultaneously do what we do while gauging how we’re doing and what’s happening around us.

As a manager you must always be in and above a conversation, aware of its direction and purpose.

I’ve seen managers miss the entire point of an encounter with an employee because they merely dealt with a conversation’s face value. Is a question about who’s on the schedule really a request for time off? What does dissatisfaction sound like? How about outright rage masked as contentment? As leaders we’re challenged with deciphering sophisticated human communication codes all the time.

One key to success is to slow down when speaking with people. Let conversations be tiny oases in your day. Give them time and focus. If you’re not present during a conversation, especially a quick one, you risk sending the wrong message.

I once spoke with a person who had asked her manager how difficult it might be for anyone to get time off during a particularly busy period. Instead of asking if there was something specific behind her question, the manager went on and on about how it’s got to be all hands on deck with everyone pitching in during this critical time. The manager had no idea the woman was dealing with an issue that would have given her protected time off through FMLA to care for her sick husband. The woman left the conversation fearing she’d have to choose between her husband and her job.

As athletes we too must see the big and small picture. We need to see the road under us while gauging our body’s fuel reserves, maintain great form while rationing precious energy. I’ve completed seven Ironman Lake Placid events and each time I’ve gone out too hard on the first 56-mile bike loop. The check I write for that ride depletes my account for what ends up being a much-harder-than-necessary run.

I’m totally in the moment, but failing to plan for the big picture.

Some tips for training these abilities include:

  • Map a definitive race plan for your next training or racing day. If you traditionally go out of the box fast, ease up a little and consciously save some for a stronger finish. Change your tendencies regularly, don’t be predictable.
  • Role play with a colleague. Have them approach you with a hidden agenda, and ask three questions before you guess their goal. Keep going in sets of three until you get it right. Each time you do this, try and dissect the agenda in fewer questions. Measure your success.
  • For a week recognize when you’re in the moment and when you’re above it. Make note of this consciously and these places will become more comfortable for you.
  • Always think about digging deeper, especially during that quick conversation with someone or a seemingly mundane Wednesday evening run. These opportunities rarely advertise themselves’ it’s up to us to recognize and capitalize on them.

Being present in and above the moment are different skills, both essential to your success.

Make fear work for you

Fear

When you last felt fear did you use the opportunity to put it to work for you?

Fear is universal and touches each of us. At least it should, because if you’re not feeling fear on a regular basis you’re not taking any chances. Real progress happens outside our comfort zone and it’s natural, even expected, to ride that wave alongside fear.

My work environment is full of change at all levels and in every crevice of my organization. This has resulted in huge doses of fear and hope, which will battle each other if not handled properly.

Times like these expose true leaders who know fear means that something is about to happen and if you don’t turn into the wave, you’ll capsize.

Leaders use fear as a motivator to fuel a mission, describing a vision and that it will take every ounce of everyone’s effort to realize the dream.

Two years ago I entered an Xterra off road triathlon. Once on my mountain bike I knew I was in unfamiliar territory, having never done as difficult a course. There were huge rock gardens (long stretches of sharp-edged rocks) to ride over at blistering speeds. Giving into fear at that moment would have tensed my body and distracted my mind, resulting for sure in a crash.

Instead, I used the opportunity to concentrate on my breathing and melted into my bike, trusting it would work with me to conquer this challenging course.

I went with it, not against it.

Early on the course, I felt a tremendous rush of adrenaline, waking the butterflies in my stomach to an excited, anticipatory state. I began to look forward to the next rock garden.

I confronted fear, tamed it, and put it to better use.

It’s a proud moment when we realize the inevitable change we’re experiencing can be directed by us with hard work and focus.

I worked at United Way during its fundraising heyday, then in an instant the bottom fell out. The top UW exec, leader of our national organization, went down for embezzling money. In an instant, our team’s instinct was to fall back, retreat, clam up, no comment, oh no!

Then we met and talked it out, eventually coming to the conclusion we needed to be overly proactive, transparent, and honest.

  • We were outraged just like everyone else.
  • We held back our own UW’s dues to the national organization until they cleaned house.
  • We opened our books for all to see that our fundraised dollars were in fact going exactly where we said they were going.
  • And, we leaned on the organizations and individuals we had helped over the years to continue to tell our story.

The fallout was bad, but not as bad as it might have been had we cowered in fear and attempted to hide under the radar. It took vision, courage, and the conversion of fear to action. Instead of waiting for the phone calls, we made them. We wrote the letters, scheduled the meetings, and put ourselves out there. Attack versus retreat.

Decide to seek out situations that instill a healthy dose of fear in you. Train yourself to recognize fear, embrace the uncertainty it brings, and convert it to a type of energy and emotion that takes you to a new place.

Consciously work with fear, and not against it, so when it surprises you you’ll be prepared to cross the rock garden fast and unscathed.

Just do it

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Our obsession to dissect and understand leadership and elite fitness has gradually elevated both out of the reach to mere mortals.

Fact is, you can become a leader and attain a level of elite fitness, it just depends on how hard you’re willing to work.

Leading a group ride is a perfect example. As the point person, you must assemble a team of riders, map out your destination and route (cue sheet), set a meeting time, distribute the cue sheet, review it with everyone, answer questions, begin the ride, deal with faster and slower riders, mechanical issues, flats, and other unplanned challenges, and make sure everyone gets back in one piece. Then there’s the post-ride celebration, everything from muffins in the parking lot to microbrews in the pub.

It’s a Leadership 101 lesson.

For that glorious ride you are a leader. If you think you need to adopt someone else’s seven habits, go for it, otherwise tap in to what you’re already doing.

Finding your inner elite athlete is as easy as setting and attaining goals. Reaching your goals may never be simple, but the blueprint to get you there ain’t brain surgery.

Navigating the road to excellence takes risk, sweat, pain, and a plan. Are you willing to leave your comfort zone and take the next step?

This could mean:

  • Making unpopular decisions that are best for the overall strategic direction of your organization.
  • Pushing yourself physically in ways you never have.
  • Collecting and analyzing data on your professional and athletic progress.
  • Rearranging your time to selfishly spend some of it developing you.
  • Consistently upgrading the quality of how you’re spending your time exercising, learning, and developing your skills.

How often do we hold ourselves back? From negative self-talk to low self-esteem, fear of failure to time constraints, we have enough shackling us without imagining our goals already out of reach.

I have a friend, Liz (pictured above) who recently won first place in her age group at a 5K. Her athletic journey has been one of balancing family, friends, obligations, work, and exercising. Like all of us, she’s had successes and setbacks, and through it all she’s made time for her athletic passion and continued to push herself beyond her limits.

I imagine it wasn’t so long ago the idea that she would be wearing a first place 5K medal seemed unthinkable to her. Today, that medal motivates my amazing friend to take her fitness to even higher levels because she is driven to improve.

Drive can be misread as obsessiveness when in fact it’s healthy and necessary for progress. It can be developed over time and incorporated into everything you do with hard work and commitment.

When you make the decision to be a leader and take your athletic life to the next level look inside yourself; you’ll find all the tools you need.

The Bike

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A bike, like your team, relies on vastly different moving parts to get you to your destination.

There’s always the unknown in cycling; flats, crashes, mechanical issues, aggressive drivers, dogs, squirrels, you name it, it’s out there waiting to ruin your ride.

Consider the bike itself; so many intricate and different components relying on each other and proper maintenance to perform like an orchestra. One wrong note and you’re sidelined.

Then, there’s the infamous squeak. How many times have you heard that odd sound coming from your bike and thought it might go away. Once you get used to it, your chain has eaten your derailleur.

It’s the same with teams.

Illness, performance issues, attitudes, divorce, personality clashes, you name it, it’s out there waiting to tear your team apart. And, there’s always that squeak, a nagging issue that goes from ripple to tsunami in an instant. Like rust on steroids, ignoring the small stuff eats away at your team.

Some things to consider:

  • Learn how your bike and team works. Ask your local bike shop mechanic if you can get a hands-on rundown of the major issues you might face on the road and how you would fix them. There are also plenty of videos and articles on the subject. As for your team, dissect it the same way. List your team members along with their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Assign your team members to a part of your bike and see where you’re loaded and lacking. Who is steady and strong but needs to be steered, like your wheels? Who can you lean on to help you lead, like your handlebars? Who drives the team from within and can adapt to changing inclines, like your chain ring? Who keeps you on track like your Garmin? Take a picture of your bike and place your team members appropriately alongside their part. You’ll see where you need help and where you’re strong.
  • Take care of your bike and team and you’ll be rewarded. Nothing works better than preventative maintenance. Check in with your people on a regular basis, reward their successes in meaningful, sincere ways and listen to their ideas and concerns. Take your bike in for regular check-ups, wash it regularly, and keep your chain clean.
  • Address the squeak immediately. Don’t let an issue grow out of control. Learn to recognize the early warning signals and respond immediately.
  • Replace parts and team members when necessary. A bad fit or defective part will throw everything and everyone out of whack. Spend your time leading, not fixing.
  • Let your team know how much you enjoy the ride. Your approval should be seen before it’s spoken.
  • Make certain you and everyone involved knows where you’re going and how you’re getting there. If you need to recalculate your direction, communicate.

If you’ve ever experienced that amazing ride or been part of an outstanding team, you know the unlimited potential of both; they will change your life and the world.

Who are you?

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You are what you do when no one’s watching.

On the Ironman Lake Placid run course, there are ample opportunities to slow down, walk, rest, even drop out of the race. At mile 13.1 there’s a fork in the road. To the right, the finish line and Mike Reilly’s comforting voice audibly excited as he gloriously anoints faster finishers ‘Ironmen.’ To the left, a second, painful 13.1-mile loop.

In each of my seven trips to Lake Placid, this moment falsely presents itself as a choice. My inner voice always suggests ending the insanity. It tells me my family and friends would understand, that this was crazy to try again anyway. Stop, turn right, give it up…

Of course stopping is never a real consideration. I always have and always will turn left at the halfway point and finish the race.

Then there are those moments alone in the trenches on Riverside Drive fighting the temptation to back off, slow down, take it easy; moments that define your Ironman journey.

In the office there are as many opportunities to cut corners and take the easy path.

Perhaps you’ve heard trouble brewing but decided to let it go. That phone call you don’t want to return, that paperwork you half-read then signed, the article you didn’t read, the performance appraisal you threw together at the last minute, the snap decision made in the midst of a crises.

Self awareness is key to overcoming this disease. Once we admit we’re corner cutters we can focus on a concerted effort to do the distances and tasks necessary to fulfill our destinies. Strengthening our ability to be honest and encouraging to ourselves is worth the effort.

Knowing yourself is key to success, allowing you to be your biggest critic and fan.

Opportunities to train look like this:

  • The next time you exercise, commit to surprising yourself with something extra, whether it be during or after your workout. Push yourself harder, go further, dig deeper than ever before. Make the commitment, then follow through.
  • At work, commit to resolving the next issue that arises by the end of the day. Let it happen randomly, consider it, reconsider it, then make a decision you’re ready to defend.
  • Sign up for a race that will push you harder than ever before. Put it on your calendar, then raise the bar on your training even if it’s just a little. Set yourself up for success.
  • The next time you come across a snap decision opportunity, put the brakes on. Tell those involved you really would like to sleep on it. Quickly write down your gut decision, then consider the alternatives later on. Give it the night, then see if you’re decision was altered in any way over time.
  • Recognize those moments when you’re faced with a choice that shouldn’t be a choice. This is when your self awareness needs to kick in big time.

When you begin doing the little things right, when no one’s watching, the larger issues will fall in line.

Remember, whether training, racing, or leading, someone is always watching…you.

Own your path

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As a manager and athlete there is no shortage of advice out there.

Magazines, books, podcasts, TED Talks, websites, seminars, consultants; counsel comes fast and furious. Our challenge is to keep the white noise in perspective and remember our personal style defines us.

A few months after my first triathlon I returned to Harriman State Park for another crack at the course. I had my new bike, wetsuit, triathlon shorts and shirt, the works. At the race a guy was selling cushioned socks. I picked up a pair and felt softness like never before. I knew these were the most comfortable socks in the world, so I bought them and put them away for another day.

Never try anything new on race day…never!

A few days later I took my new socks for a test drive and my feet were in heaven. My blind allegiance to the ‘never new on race day’ advice read in one of my biblical magazines postponed what would have been a joyful race day run.

‘Nothing new on race day’ remains great advice. I ran alongside a poor soul during the 2011 Ironman Lake Placid who had taken salt pills for the first time that morning because someone told her she needed the sodium replenishment. She was hoping to qualify for the World Triathlon Championship in Kona but was reduced to a slow walk/jog because the pills made her sick. Her dreams dashed, she ate from a bag of potato chips.

First time salt pills on race day = bad idea.

At best, this is advice and must be treated as such. When we blindly internalize suggestions and guidelines we become defined by something other than our instincts. This is never good. The most amazing managers and leaders regularly look at the status quo and ask why, bring common sense and personality to the table, break rules, and push boundaries.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “They followed the rules to greatness”?

Our relationship with personnel policies conjures similar questions. Too often I’ve seen people’s common sense and intuition take a back seat to a written policy. Policies are like any other guidelines or advice; some are necessary and helpful while others are outdated and divisive. You must engage your judgment – who you are at your core – to know the difference. When you reach a conclusion that things must change, as a leader and advocate for your team you must speak up and act.

Ask yourself:

  • Do your policies support or thwart your people?
  • Are vacations regularly denied?
  • Is there a general feeling of haves and have nots?
  • Are there policies that when brought up cause managers to groan, i.e. dress code and cell phone guidelines?

If so, instead of living with the mediocrity, put your stamp on some overdue change.

While you’re at it, conduct a judgment audit on yourself. For one week write down moments when your actions or those around you clash with your instincts. Review your list and ask yourself why. Are your actions – athletic and professional – rooted in your own mind and heart, or someone else’s?

You can learn from, collaborate with, and teach others, but at the end of the day you own your greatness.