There is no business transformation without the transformation of its leaders. Far too many transformational efforts don’t deliver on its high ambitions. Instead of realising step-change improvements, they often lead to incremental change. Through sports, I experienced what it took to realise step-change improvements. To tap into unknown opportunities, I had to reinvent my leadership approach. In only 18 months, I improved my performance running 24-hour ultramarathons by 22 percent and became the fastest-ever Australian at the 24-hour world championships. Given that my insights are easily transferrable into the business world, here are my top five takeaways on transformative leadership:
Insight #1: Transformation starts with working on ourselves
Transformation is like the process of metamorphosis, where the caterpillar becomes the butterfly. Therefore, it starts with each one of us to transform. The tough reality is that we are part of the whatever problem we are trying to solve. The secret lies in lifting our inner game. In 2018 I was far off becoming an Australian representative for the world champs team. Not because of my legs, but because of my mindset. To unlock growth that emerges from deep within our inherent potential, it is us leaders who have to embark on personal development journeys.
Insight #2: Our biggest challenges are adaptive in their nature
For years I had been searching in the wrong spot: I’d focussed on running training and hunted perfect race conditions in order to run faster. As long as we treat our biggest challenges and highest dreams as if they were technical, we search for what we have to learn, solve or fix. Yet, more expertise, knowledge or skills will never be sufficient when, in fact, the challenge is adaptive in its nature. Instead, we have to redefine who we are and rise to the challenge. What held me back was the fear of failure. My limiting belief was that I was not good enough to be part of the Australian selection. To become transformative leaders, we have to learn how to let go of our fears and limiting beliefs.
Insight #3: ‘Turn right’ to leave your comfort zone
My journey started when I accidently turned right at my garden gate. I realised that I had previously always turned left, longing for predictability. I chose to no longer cling to my comfort zone and faced my reactive tendencies by, metaphorically speaking, turning right more often. Top of my long list of reactivity featured overthinking, the urge to control and emotionally distancing myself. The alternative was to get comfortable with uncertainty, acknowledging afflictive emotions and trusting my intuition. Becoming vulnerable and overcoming our autopilot is essential to become a transformative leader.
Insight #4: Surrender to uncertainty
I still find it difficult at times to embrace uncertainty. At the world championships, I found myself in 102nd position after a couple of hours, struggling with the hot conditions. It would have been easy to crumble under the pressure wearing the green and gold uniform for the first time. Yet, I surrendered to what was happening. Surrendering has nothing to do with giving up. Instead, it is being fully present to the conditions as they are. When the temperature dropped at night and other runners paid the toll for over-pacing, I climbed up the leaderboard to claim eleventh position. Transformative leaders make not knowing their strength.
Insight #5: Inspire your team and energise
Whatever challenge you are facing, you will have to take others on the transformation journey. If you think you can do it on your own, you will be on your own. To be transformational, we have to inspire the people around us with a joint vision. Not only will it give meaning to them, but can also help us to get through the difficult times. In a 24-hour race it’s those dark hours around 2 am, when the legs scream that they’ve had enough and the mind cannot yet imagine that there will ever be another sunrise or a finish. Essentially, there is no difference whether you run 259.67 kilometres within 24 hours, run a team or run a business. We have to bring meaning to the challenge.
To become all that we can be, we are asked to step up our leadership. Transformation occurs when we let go of being the caterpillar wanting to crawl faster and become a butterfly spreading our wings.