The great thing about running ultra marathons as opposed to running shorter running races is that it gives the participant a chance to go slow, stop often and eat lots of food. My running career started off with far too much excitement about running lots and lots of relatively speedy half marathons. Indeed, one year I set my PB marathon (a tad over 1:20) whilst running 120 odd halves in a single calendar year.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve begun to prefer much longer races. I’m now one of those annoying ultramarathon runners who tells people that running 100kms is actually easier than running a fast road marathon (truth!) I love spending time going slow, smelling the roses, chatting to my fellow competitors, and generally not pushing the pace.

Given this context, it could be seen as somewhat interesting that when it comes to business, I have a very strong predilection to speed. I always remember chatting with Rod Drury, the founder of New Zealand tech success story Xero, about his views on business. Rod was always very keen to articulate his favourite quote:

it’s not the big that eat the small it’s the fast that eat the slow

I’ve been thinking about speed recently, and reflecting upon the different business leaders that I’ve had the privilege to work with. Serving on a large number of different boards gives me the opportunity to observe different styles. I’ve worked with alpha types, as well as more collaborative leaders. I’ve encountered incredibly intelligent individuals and those with awesome EQ. I’ve seen the magic that happens when the same individual displays those both those traits.

In all the experiences I’ve had, it’s struck me that the thing that really moves the needle is being able to hustle/. We live in an incredibly dynamic time. Our current economic condition is just the tip of the iceberg. Think about generational changes and the rise of the millennials. Consider the impact of geopolitical and cyber security risks coming from all directions. Cogitate upon AI and its promise to obliterate traditional norms.

Everything is more difficult and related to the focus point of this article, everything is more dynamic. Which is why one of the primary attributes I look for in not only a leader but also a team member, is hustle. The ability to take an idea, maybe even an idea that’s only 80% formed and to run with it. In this day and age looking for 100% accurate solution is crazy. As Winston Churchill, the leader who always had the pithiest quotes, stated:

Perfection is as the saying goes is the enemy of progress.

But how do we balance hustle and velocity while trying to avoid knee jerk reactions? How do we ensure that in that drive to Get Shit Done, that the wheels don’t fall off? This is where leadership comes in.

It strikes me that the role of a leader, and as evidenced by some of the best leaders that I’ve had the privilege of working with, is to set the direction, remove the roadblocks and give the team the autonomy to execute. Yes, there’s some command and control and it’s important for leaders to, as the saying goes, trust but verify. But first and foremost, the role is to make sure that everyone is in that waka together, rowing in the same direction.

I’ve seen so many examples of organizations that are rudderless where there are entire teams in a boat together, all rowing in fundamentally different directions and fighting against each other. Not only do those teams burn an incredible amount of energy, but they also, at best, go around in circles. At worst they just stand still, while creating lots and lots of splash. So that’s my view on leadership. It’s about ensuring that we can go fast in the same direction.

Leadership is a team sport whereas my ultra marathons are very much an individual sport. That said, I haven’t yet done an ultramarathon where I didn’t spend significant amounts of time on the trail chatting with other competitors. It’s this interplay between the facets of individual reliance, resilience and autonomy on one hand and collective wisdom and direction on the other that yields the best results.

I don’t think I’m ever going to run a sub three hour marathon. I got very close, but my motivation just wasn’t there. I’ll carry on with my slow and steady ultra marathons but when it comes to business, it’s all about speed, baby

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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