Updated: May 11, 2018

A recent trend in amateur endurance events is something called the Spartan Race. Set at various distances, Spartan Races include a series of obstacles such as fire jumps, barbed wire, wall climbing, mud crawling, heavy object carries, tire flips, rope swings, and many others. As with any race, the basic goal of Spartan Races is to finish. But ask any participant, and they will tell you that they don’t just want to finish – they want to finish well, finish strong.

For most of us, the work we do is much the same – maybe not with the same obstacles, but often with similar goals. We not only want to finish, we want to finish well. But like a race, there are certain characteristics that allow us to perform our work in a way that allows us to cross the finish line as a winner. Here are a few to consider:

Train to Win

Regardless of athletic ability, the best athletes know that they have to train consistently. The best training techniques involve a routine that focuses on the whole. In other words, runners can’t just strengthen their legs – their entire body needs to be in condition. That means strength as well as endurance. To find success for your organization, you need to look at your overall needs. Continuing education, best practices, assessing goals and adjusting along the way are part of that process. The most successful athletes also rely on training partners. Your training partners are your staff, board, volunteers and consultants – the people who help carry the load, who support and encourage you, and also hold you accountable. Surround yourself with people who share your vision and passion for your mission.

Visualize the Goal

I once asked a dedicated marathon runner how she prepared for running in different cities and on different courses where conditions and landmarks might not always be familiar. Among the techniques she shared was that she would typically do a “virtual run” ahead of the race, using a street level mapping app. She would also go to the finish line the day before the run, go back a block or two, then either walk or jog the final distance so she had the goal visually in mind. Likewise, our organization goals should be in a format that allows us to clearly see what achieving those goals will look like. Goals should also have measurable checkpoints along the way that allow us to assess our progress.

Don’t Look Back

In 1954, two men achieved fame for breaking the four minute mile. Roger Bannister of England was the first to break the mark with a time of 3:59.4. Australian John Landy subsequently became the new record holder with an official time of 3:58. 

On August 7, 1954 during the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., England’s Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy met for the first time in a one mile race. Billed as “The Mile of the Century”, it would later be known as the “Miracle Mile”. Landy was leading the race with only 90 yards to go when he glanced over his left shoulder to check Bannister’s position. At that instant, Bannister ran past him on the right to cross the finish line first.

Knowing where we come from, where we have been, helps us set our course for the future. But once the course is set, spending too much time dwelling on the past can keep us from pursuing the future that will best fulfill our mission.

Embrace Setbacks

Landy might have considered his loss to Bannister in 1954 an embarrassing setback. Instead, he used it as a teachable moment, and pressed forward. Nearly two years later, Landy competed in the one mile final at the 1956 Australian National Championships prior to the Melbourne Olympic Games. On the third lap, another runner clipped the heel of Ron Clarke, who was leading the race, causing Clarke to fall. Landy stopped to check on his rival. Clarke got back to his feet and started running again with Landy following. By the final lap Landy made up a large deficit to win the race, something considered one of the greatest moments in Australian sporting history.

Continuing to try after what some might see as failure is the mark of a champion. We all have moments when setbacks may seem like the end of the road; however, we learn valuable lessons from setbacks. They can be motivators, and challenge us to consider what to do differently or better, what pitfalls and obstacles to avoid as we get up and continue the race.

Celebrate Victories

How do we measure victory? Is it coming in first? Bettering our previous record? Beating a rival? While competitive measurements can signify victory, often times our real achievements are those that help us fulfill our mission and propel us toward our vision. But those goals can often feel more distant than a marathon finish line. It’s important to identify benchmarks along the way that signify progress, and recognize even incremental achievements that might easily go unnoticed. We are all busy, and there never seem to be enough hours in the day or week to get everything done. We are constantly chasing deadlines and playing catch up, and if we are not careful, we forget to celebrate moments that demonstrate even small victories. Be aware of those moments among your team members and take time to acknowledge and reward their achievements along the way. You will find an even more committed team of staff and volunteers. And don’t forget to look for your own victories and reward yourself as well.

Not every nonprofit leader is prepared to undertake what is necessary to stay the course and run the race. What are your goals? What will mark a victory for you and your organization in the weeks, months, and years ahead? In the Bible, 1 Corinthians 9:24 states it this way: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

On your mark. Get set . . .

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