Updated: Mar 2
When you think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps you first think of his courage to speak openly about controversial subjects to massive audiences. Or maybe you think of his determination, which he demonstrated through consistent and tireless messages and actions.
MLK’s ability to inspire others into action, with these qualities and many others, is what I believe makes him one of the greatest leaders in American history. As I read about him, and other great leaders, I ponder the actions I can take to personify that great leader in myself. Although I usually take on this exercise through the lens of my career, I am inspired to put the lessons of great leaders into action as a Coach and an Athlete.
To guide this Leadership exercise, I enlisted the help of two Leadership experts - Christine McHugh, a 25-year executive from Starbucks, who started as a Barista and grew into three different Vice President roles, and Patricia Bravo, Leadership Development Consultant focused on Empathetic Leadership. I asked Christine and Patricia to tell me what they believe are the top qualities of great leaders.
What traits to great leaders possess? More importantly, how do they put them into action?
I listed below six leadership qualities that Christine and Patricia named as the top qualities that successful leaders possess, and re-framed them for your athletic self.
To get in the right frame of mind for this, I like to imagine a “brain swap.” Here’s how it works - imagine your life, your goals, your challenges, your body, and MLK’s brain (or your personal leadership hero’s brain) in your head. How would MLK manage YOUR goals, within the context of YOUR life, if he was a passionate ultra-endurance athlete, as well as a high-achieving executive, and loving family member?
Never stop learning, and be an active listener. The more you learn about how your body handles different workouts, or different foods, the more flexible you can be in different circumstances. You must listen to the advice of your coach as much as the requests from your spouse for more date nights! Listen to your training partners to support them.
You must realize how self-absorbed you can be when you’re in the thick of training. It’s ok, I’m not finding fault with that - as long as you can realize the impact that your crazy schedule has on people who depend on you. If you are truly empathizing with those who you surround yourself with, you will willingly adjust your training as needed, and make compromises as requested.
#3 Recognizing Strengths in Yourself and Others
A great leadership quality is “recognizing people's strengths to get the the best out of them,” says Christine. While our endurance sports are typically a solo endeavor, I will turn this around to say that, in order to achieve your athletic goals, you must know your strengths and use them to help you advance your goals forward. As a Coach, one of the most fundamental things I can do is to help an athlete recognize their strengths and limiters so that we can develop their limiters, and use their strengths to their benefit on race day.
Be who you are. You do you. However you want to say it, it is going to be impossible for you to train or race like any other athlete that you know. I’m terrible at comparing myself to others. I compare my training and my results to others and have lived through this energy-suck. But when I harness who I am, and what I can achieve, I find myself in a state of flow.
As someone with a jam-packed schedule, your success will grow ten-fold when you start planning ahead. Get tomorrow’s workout gear ready tonight before you go to bed. Plan your longest training weekends 3-4 weeks in advance. Don’t schedule your A-race right after a big conference you need to attend.
A quality that great leaders have is the “agility to influence both the process and people side of change,” Patricia tells me. Within the context of our endurance endeavors, we must be able to ebb and flow around the events in our lives that we can’t control. Flexibility is a skill as much as it is a mindset. You get the skills from your learning and listening (see #1 in this list).
Putting Leadership Into Action
According to Christine, the number one blind spot that leaders have is “thinking they can do it all or know it all.” Or worse, says Patricia, is “Lack of awareness that they have a blind spot.” Your life is jam-packed and you can’t do it all, and you DO have blind spots. To their point, I would add “Communication” to the list above as a great leadership quality. In the context of your training, great communication with your Coach, your boss, and your family about your challenges, and explicitly requesting their help, will go a long way to get their support.
How To Measure Your Success as a Leader
In your business, some KPIs you may look at to measure your leadership success are:
# of people that come to you for help/advice,
# of people that want to work for you,
# of team members that are willing to provide you feedback
In the context of your training, you may develop a leadership quality index that captures the aggregate of the qualities listed above. For example, give yourself a score - or better yet, have a close friend, co-worker, or spouse give you a score - for each of the leadership qualities listed above. This can be your baseline. As you improve in each of these areas, take a note of where you are in the accomplishment of your goals.
If the science and the art are working harmoniously, you should find that as your leadership skills improve, you move closer to your goals.
Here are some great reads about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired this article:
More about Christine McHugh
Christine held executive positions at Starbucks for 25 years, starting as a Barista and moving into several different Vice President roles during her time at the company. She is now the Founder and Consulting Executive for Christine McHugh Consulting, helping leaders unlock high performance and unlimited potential in their business and their teams.
More about Patricia Bravo
Patricia comes from a background in leadership development and is the Owner and Consultant for Bravo For You, a Consulting firm that focuses on Empathetic Leadership. She is also a part-time faculty member at University of Washington Bothell.