At a primary level, running long distances is about physicality. Marathons are not about a spurt of energy that will take you across small distances but it is about building muscles, stamina, limbs and lungs for sheer endurance to last the distance. The first quarter of a distance is undifferentiated where almost all the runners are running in close packs. Everyone is fresh and well trained. By the midpoint, dispersion starts to happen. While at the macro-level, each cluster is competing with the cluster behind, each runner knows quite well, soon they will be competing amongst themselves. By the end of the third quarter, the same phenomenon repeats itself where clusters get broken into dyads or triads. It is at the beginning of the fourth quarter that the contours of winners start to emerge. A few will be placed within some meters of each other and the rhythm of the feet pounding on gravel will give away nothing of what is going in the mind of each runner. It is this quarter that separates the men from the boys. All training and preparation moves into the background. Every mile from here on is not about strength or stamina but about who one really is, things that go on in one’s mind, one’s conversation with one’s own self, how aware one is of what the body is saying, and about the race the person is running.
Step-by-step you become aware that you are not running to compete, but to complete! Meter-by-meter you know that the next person is as competent as you, as well trained as you, but this is not about you in relation to others, but it is about you in relation to yourself. You become aware of how fragile and vulnerable you are at this stage, how you have reached till the tethering end of your physical being, but there is an inner voice that tells you to hang on, be there, not let go, just jump one more step and then one more, for in the act of staying the course with the soul and body intact is redemption.
Even in the most intense ‘I’ moment, in what appears to be an individual achievement, the runner is connected to all his fellow runners and does not take himself too seriously so as to become haughty and vain. He knows that running this race was his great fortune and he must be thankful to the race and fellow participants to bring out the best in him, for without the race and what his fellow runners contributed to the moment, this victory would have just not been possible.
The corporate world is a lot like long distance running; and leadership success, beyond a point, lies in knowing ourselves well enough
The corporate world is a lot like long distance running. Education, opportunity, lucky breaks etc. do make a difference in terms of how we are placed in the first or the second or the third quarter. But by the time we begin our fourth quarter, and here I do not only mean the race to the corner office, or the race at advanced ages but even smaller races — it is not merely education, opportunity and lucky breaks that make the difference. There are some larger factors that are at play overtly or behind the scenes that includes our self-image; how do we relate with others; our attitude towards others who are on our team or who are competing with us; when the race is at its peak what is going on in our mind; what is our mental conversation; when we are at the finishing line or when we see someone inching past what is the first thing that comes to our mind; how do we deal with victory and defeat; how do we deal with envy and jealousy; how do we deal with people who are like us and who are not like us; how do we deal with feeling of knowing that we know and the feeling that we may not know; how do we handle disappointments; how do we take decisions when everyone in the room is on one side backed with analysis and there is an inner voice that tells us to walk the opposite path and we have no data to back it up; how do we ask questions; how do we answer questions; how do we make people feel; how we feel when we meet people; how do we ask for help and how do we offer help; how do we relate to others and how others relate to us, so on and so forth.
Like the long distance marathoner, observers of the corporate race will tell us that there is something fuzzy about a genuine long-term success, which cannot be accounted only by education and lucky breaks. They help certainly but not always and there is a significant exception to these formulas, enough to force us to look beyond. Leadership success, beyond a point, lies in knowing ourselves well enough.
This true knowing of self, our own motives, our own conversations, when we are our own witness – is called awareness. When we do not know all of it and our sense of ‘I’ becomes larger than the race itself, it is called Ego. I am not a psychologist and use these words almost colloquially. However, Kabeer is almost an instruction manual in understanding and taming this beast. Understanding it, in fact, is the first step in taming it.
Ego in managers and leaders mean that their sense of self is higher than their sense of the collective
Ego in managers and leaders mean that their sense of self is higher than their sense of the collective. One cannot walk past a corporate corridor where homilies and tributes are not being paid to the merits of teamwork, working together with people and keeping team interests above individual interests. In fact, this is almost a clamor today, forcing us to ask an innocent question, if the collective is indeed more important than self and if millions of dollars are indeed spent every year round the globe to help organizations foster the culture of team spirit, then either those programs are ineffective or pure team work is as much an utopia as is, say socialism. One works towards a more equal society very well knowing that the basic human need for progress will create some who will end up being better than the rest. Is it possible that a similar conceptual impossibility besieges the notion of teamwork? The same sense of self that propels the engine of progress is also at the heart of ego. So does it mean that individual brilliance will always come at the price of weakening true teamwork?
So much to reflect! As Kabeer says –
Padhi guni, Pathak bhaye, samjhaya sansaar
Aapan ko samjhe nahi, brithaa gaya avatar
Studying and teaching the world, will be of no avail; Not knowing self – such a waste of life!