In this ongoing series of conversations with gifted leaders I am exploring #LeadershipFlow in action. What is it? How does it help leaders navigate change and inspire others to reach for more?
I recently spoke with Don Kern, who on December 1st, 2011, set the world record for the fastest time to complete a marathon on each continent. He started in Soweto, South Africa, then headed for Ticino, Switzerland, Curitiba, Brazil, Fukuchiyama, Japan, Westport, New Zealand, Cocoa, Florida, and finally Antarctica, near the Union Glacier. In the end, he ran 183.4 total miles in 25 days, 18 hours and 10 minutes, and has written a book about the experience called And the Adventure Continues. But Don not only runs marathons, he is the founder/director of the Grand Rapids Marathon, and I wanted his take on mastery, leadership, and flow.
Croft: This obviously required a huge personal commitment, what motivates you?
Don: Yes, the world record took a few tries and lots of planning. My motivation is I love to run but also, and this is why I wrote the book, I really like bringing people along and helping them set goals and accomplish things that are bigger than they thought they could do. I guess also, I am afraid of getting old and not having played the music that’s there. I want my kids, my friends, and everybody else to see that, and see the joy I get out of doing things that most people would consider a little off the wall, or orbiting a little further out than most people.
Croft: It took you a while to find your true purpose – your authentic self?
Don: I ran my first marathon when I was 39. I was a late-in-life runner, anyone can start anytime. Earlier in life I was a good computer programmer. I’m good at it, but it wasn’t something that I was necessarily all that passionate about. And it really took me until I was in my 40’s before I realized what I really like is instigating, is making things happen and hauling other people along on my adventures whatever they happen to be. For me, it helps if I am physically strong, it improves my capacity to make things happen.
Croft: So, obviously running is a practice you do. Are there any other practices you do that keep you growing and evolving?
Don: Yes, I keep a list. I had a life list back before they were called bucket lists. I continually add to it and knock a few things off of it now and then. I have had in the course of my lifetime a very natural progression of movement from one thing to the next. And you know I call it the flow. Just don’t get in the way, just go with it and let it continue from one thing to another. I am having fun now doing race structuring and so it has all been a very natural progression from one thing to another and I attribute that to the flow – just don’t get in the way, just go with it.
Croft: Let it happen?
Don: Let it happen and you will recognize the opportunities. Don’t be afraid to try something. I have stayed pretty comfortable with change because I just try not to get in the way.
Cultivating other Leaders and Teams: Leaders in #LeadershipFlow understand the need to cultivate follow-on team members. This is one of the most critical tasks a leader can undertake. If an organization wants their leaders to lead by example, they must coach, mentor, and teach them to lead by example.
Croft: Let’s talk about Leadership, having run your Grand Rapids Marathon I know what an efficient and well-run event it is. Any insights about managing your people?
Don: Someone will call me on the phone, “Don, I had to buy some stuff that cost $200.” It’s like okay; don’t need to ask. I kind of expect leadership from everyone that is on the staff. You don’t need my permission to do something right. Exercise reasonable restraint and do what is necessary. Then I don’t have to micromanage them, which feels pretty great.
Croft: It sounds as if there lot of trust inherent in this organization.
Don: Absolutely, I trust these people. I love these people. They are awesome people, all of them. And you know we bring each other along. They’re people I can count on – I could call most anybody that I have on my staff and say, “Hey can you come and do this?” And it’s, “Oh yeah, sure.”
For Don, it seems to me, that the people on his team are not just team members but fellow “instigators,” cohorts on his journey who he expects to be as bold and adventurous as he is. That is cultivating other leaders and teams in action. What other leaders or teams are you cultivating?
Croft: So the group effort, the collective vision is crucial to your enterprise?
Don: It is one of those things that if you’ve got a vision, a plan, and you believe in yourself, it just attracts good people. Now we’ve got 45 people on the staff that put this marathon together, they are all leaders and they all have vision.They’re all people I can trust because they just want to be a part of a cool thing. It still happens regularly, I’ll have people come up and say, “Hey I want to get on the staff, how can I help with this?” They see that it’s a good, life-enhancing thing. People come out there, set big goals and change their lives – and being part of that is a key. Leaders naturally gravitate towards that. Even with sponsorships, people just stepped up and said, “Hey can we help with this? How can we get involved?” It has been a very fluid thing. When you’ve got something that works for people and something people think should happen, people come on board and help make it happen.
What I learned in this conversation and in reading Don’s book was how the the Grand Rapids Marathon became a reality when Don saw it in the future. Whether it be a marathon, a business, or a culture shaping movement, it is the leader who sees the possibility. What is the future you are envisioning?
Croft: You have a good running story that reveals a lot about #Leadershipflow – and leaders who coach, mentor and lead by example.
Don: There are often good coaching opportunities along the way in a marathon. One time I came up on this young kid, probably 22 or so, running his first marathon, we are at 19 miles running in Pennsylvania. I say,“How ya doin’ man?” He’s walking and he says,”Man, I am hurting.” I say,“You know most men never try to do this. You are doing something very few ever do.” And he comes along and he runs. And he’s running, so we keep working and working and working. But in the middle of mile 26 we’ve got to make it up this really steep hill and cross the bridge and then it’s the finish line. He’s young and got much younger legs, stronger than mine, so he gets to the top of the hill, 30 yards ahead of me and he just stops. He says,”You been coaching me this far, I’m not gonna finish it without you.” So we run across the finish line side by side, and finish the thing together. It’s just a great thing, you know, we all encourage each other out there.
This is Leadershipflow in action for me. When Don showed up, a new future became a possibility for the young runner. The runner finished the race, but Don, through his presence and the leader he was, helped the runner shape in his mind that finishing the race was possible.
Croft: Last thoughts from a leadership perspective?
Don: One of the things that I tell my people on my staff is that everybody here is a leader, and that I expect them to act as leaders. It’s high expectations and trust. You expect people to be smart and they end up being smart. You expect people to be leaders and they end up being leaders. I anticipate that anybody who is working on the staff is doing so because they love what they are doing. And that love translates into a high quality event. It translates into just a wonderful combination of people working together.
Don: When they say they are going to do something, they do it. The staff meetings are amazing. They get together and its like this organism of people, there will be a little clusters of people meeting all over in different spots. Then they’ll gather back to the middle for a minute or two, back and forth until decisions are happening. These distinct people just mesh together. They are just great.
Croft: It sounds like you love what you do.
Don: Oh, I absolutely love what I do; I have probably the best job in the world.
What is being revealed to me in my conversations with #LeadershipFlow leaders is the need to love what they do. It does not matter what they do but rather that they love what they do, it is a calling, it is a love of their life. What about you? Do you love what you do? If not what is stopping you from loving what you do? These are powerful questions to explore, and if you want to experience #leadershipflow, questions you must explore.