Learning from Crisis - Lessons from the Boston Marathon

I've been a very fortunate Bostonian.

Besides the obvious fortune of being able to live in the greatest city in world - the past four years have been sports nirvana.  I've seen the Bruins in the Stanley Cup, the Revs reach the MLS Cup, the Sox win the World Series and the Pats lift the Lombardi Trophy! It has basically been sports greatness non-stop (let's ignore the three last place finishes by the Sox!).  The most memorable sporting moments for me, however, have all been during the Boston Marathon - a race I've had the opportunity to run the past three years. 

The Marathon in 2013 was one of the most impactful events in my life. 

There will be some that read this that are crazy enough to have run a marathon (I've run four and have plans to run another in November... Yeah, I'm REALLY crazy), but for those of you that have only shaken your head at us weekend running warriors, let me give you some insight into what it's like... Torture, ice baths, blisters, snow, aches, pains and more ice baths.

Despite the absolute grind, the feeling of crossing that finish line is unlike any other feeling. The feeling of adrenaline rushing through you - elation, pride - battling back the physical and emotional exhaustion, the pain. It’s something we call the “Runner’s High” - but you don’t get it, and that’s ok. We don’t do it for you, we do it for ourselves…

Most of the country doesn’t understand that the Boston Marathon truly is the “Super Bowl” of running. There isn’t anything else like it - the history, the course, the weather, the city… They grossly limit the field by requiring ridiculously fast qualifying times (that sounded like a #humblebrag, but it wasn't - my ticket was punched by raising money for charity) - this isn’t your local running club’s 10k. And, on April 15, 2013 - everything was just as it should be. 


April 15, 2013 was a pristine Patriot’s Day. One of those days you pray for when planning a picnic for a first date - deep blue sky with contrasting fluffy clouds and a crisp spring temperature in the high 50s - warm enough to be pleasant, but cool enough to want to share the blanket. This was my first marathon and I had the nerves of a kid on the first day of Middle School… I knew what to do and how to do it, but I was in a big, new, scary place and just didn’t want to look stupid. Thankfully, my training partner and Boston-Marathon-Partner-for-Life had run in big races and was full of “pro tips” (big shoutout to the man, the myth, the Legend - Eric Winton!). 

Frankly (this is your official #humblebrag warning), I CRUSHED the race!! Wow, ok, you’re right. That was just an obnoxious, blatant brag…and I’m ok with it! I EARNED it! I couldn’t have scripted the day any better. I came out smart, survived the middle and dominated the hills. I actually posted negative splits the last five miles (that’s a really geeky, impressive running lingo - nailed it). 

It was perfect. Until it wasn't. 

We were blocks away from the finish line when the bombs went off… A string of emotions came at full speed - curiosity, confusion, anger, frustration, worry, fear. It couldn’t really be happening, could it? Will I get to finish? Why are they stopping me?! What the…?! Why do we have to turn back? Wait, so I’m not going to finish?! What do you mean it’s not safe? What happened? 

I don’t need to chronicle what happened at 2:49pm EST. You’ve heard about it, read about it, likely, you’ve seen the footage. What you may not know is what efficient brilliance was shown by a group of people that was prepared for aching muscles, blisters and over-exertion - not multiple bombs meant to destroy and maim. 

Lessons from the Boston Marathon: Prepare for the Unknown Tomorrow

  • Acquire the Right Resources
    As a business leader, you are responsible for ensuring your organization has the most effective resources possible for any given scenario. If you’re a new supervisor on the factory floor, it’s making sure you’re people are on-time, alert and have the right safety equipment… If you are responsible for coordinating the most prestigious marathon in the world, you worry about water, gatorade, clocks and of course, great volunteer and medical staffs. Why were there limited casualties from the TWO bombs that were set off at the finish line? The marathon was adequately staffed and had the right resources to react accordingly to anything - even a pair of bombs. If you are going to be a great leader - capable of navigating even the most tumultuous of situations - you must acquire the right resources and prepare them for anything. How? It starts with communicating...
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
    For anyone that has been involved with the Boston Marathon in the last decade knows they are incredibly efficient. One impressive manifestation of this is the way they communicate. They have a constant drumbeat of communication throughout the year - from “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted!” to “See you next year!” to the signs papered all over the city leading up to the race. The learning? Their culture of clear communication resonates through everything. Everyone in attendance understands who, what, when, where and how. This isn’t on accident. You cannot be prepared to thrive through crisis if you’re people don’t trust you (if they hear you, but don't trust you - you'll lose). Trust starts with communication.
  • Accept That the Only Constant is Change
    Medical professionals are a different breed. They are trained from day one to expect the unexpected and persevere through any and every situation to save people’s lives. They’re incredible. Obviously, this was true of those volunteers at the finish line. They were prepared for anything. They were ready for any scenario - even one that was never supposed to happen. Agility, Flexibility and Change are critical core competencies for an organization that hopes to exist beyond tomorrow. If you hope to be successful next quarter, next year or into the next decade - you better start learning - and teaching - how to thrive through change.
  • Execute. Don't Panic. 
    One of my all-time favorite quotes came from a Lee Child novel, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It doesn’t matter what you do if you can’t execute. I’m not talking about executing in the “best case scenario”; this is the real world. It’s scary, it changes, everything goes wrong and at least one thing breaks. Every. Single. Day. Arguably, this is what the team at the Finish Line did best - they executed. They didn’t panic - they didn’t run away. They did what they were (tangentially) trained to do. In crisis situations, the people follow their leader. YOU’RE ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDEST. 

Prepare yourself. Start today. 

I ran the marathon the next year with 35,755 of my closest friends - the largest field in the history of the race. It was a glorious day (albeit, wicked hot!). It was perfect again…

But I promise you this, everyone was ready to respond. To anything.

Are you? How will you react in the face of crisis? 

Battling Irrelevance: What Shinseki Got Right That You Continue to Screw Up

Retired four star U.S. Army general Eric Shinseki is a hero. There isn't any other way to describe him. He is a second generation American (his grandparents emigrated from Hiroshima to Hawaii in 1901), born in Hawaii in 1942. Shinseki was highly educated, attending the US Military Academy and earning a Master of Arts degree from Duke. He held a multitude of postings in his 38 years of military service - their singular connection: success.

Shinseki earned TWO Purple Hearts, THREE Bronze Stars, multiple Distinguished Service Medals (from Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard), and the Army Commendation Medal, among others. Shinseki is the MJ, Pele, Tom (Brady, of course) and Ted (yes, Ted WIlliams) all in one. 

So yeah, we can all agree he's a hero. That's how you would describe him.

That's just part of the story. There's more - the former Army chief of staff lived and personified leadership. Collins would call him a Level 5 Leader. Covey would say that he is a leader that actively lived the 8th Habit. Kotter would call him the ultimate Change Agent. Blanchard would call him The Servant Leader.  Shinseki, though, in his incredible humility and grace, would probably prefer what my niece would call him before giving him a big hug, (in her adorable two year old lisp) "Mr. Shinthekee!" 

So, we're clear. He was humble, heroic and an incredible leader, but what does this have to do with me? With you? Shinseki was transformational and you can learn a lot more from him than you can your required HR Supervisor course. 

Rewind to 1999 when Shinseki became the Army's chief of staff. The Army was generally tired, rigid, immobile and ready to fight wars like they did in Vietnam and during Desert Storm - with a defined enemy in a defined location. Shinseki knew that a transformation was needed. We needed to be nimble, mobile, flexible and ready to strike quickly - something Shinseki referred to as the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams. 

Saying he was met with resistance is like saying you're not looking forward to going to the DMV. #understatement

Since we are talking about the government and change - Shinseki was (predictably) called before Congress to defend his proposal. While being talked down to about his "outrageous" proposal, Shinseki, as cool and calm as ever, leaned forward in his chair and said something that had become his mantra during his time as chief of staff, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance a lot less."


What's your choice? Change or irrelevance? 

As we know now, Shinseki was right. We had to change our Army - the most powerful army in the history of the world - to maintain our relevance in a war that we had never seen with an enemy we had never encountered. Many would claim it was too late and resulted in unnecessary casualties, but that's not what I want to argue. I want to argue - no, implore you - that you need to transform your outlook. 

Why do you hate change so much? Isn't it better than irrelevance?  Yet you toil each and every day to keep things from changing. This isn't about Kodak or Blockbuster; this isn't some case study. This is your life!

You have the opportunity in every moment to go on the offensive, to battle irrelevance. Here's how you FLIP your life, your organization and your spouse (haha - yeah right - I'm not going there!) from didn't reach their potential to smiling when you look in the mirror:

   Fail. This makes all the self-proclaimed perfectionists - or anyone Type A - VERY uncomfortable. To be successful and reach a place that you've never allowed yourself to imagine, you must take chances - and taking chances means failing. Fail often, quickly and forward. Most people are taught that failure is a four letter word, but I would assert that as long as you aren't making the same "mistakes" twice, you are becoming a better you. 

   Listen. My mother is an incredibly wise woman, she has to be, she's a Nona. My mother always told me I had "two ears and one mouth" and that "hearing and listening are two different things..." While I still don't fully know what any of that means, I do know that building real relationships and surrounding yourself with a community of individuals that you will give you real feedback is critical. Stop having a bunch of fake "friends" and find yourself a Joey, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Monica and, most importantly, a Phoebe. Then, listen to what they say! And give them a hug after they say it.

   Improve. Improvement is all about practice. Remember what Gladwell said about deliberate practice for 10,000 hours? Fortunately for you this doesn't fall into that category. However, you can't just think, "Phoebe is right - I need to change" and then everything is magically going to be better. You must be intentional - you have to focus (which is hard since most of you are doing at least two other things as you read this). If you truly desire to change, you must invest your time and attention.   

   Perform. This is it - the payoff. You get to actually do what you've been practicing. Yes, actually doing it is the hard part, but it is, without a doubt, the best part. The reality is, you can't truly FLIP your life if you don't put it into action. You can't FLIP your organization if you don't execute. Now is the time to truly make the change, or, as Robin Williams would say, "Carpe Diem!

Churchill was famous for saying, "To improve is to change. To perfect is to change often." I'm sure Shinseki was a fan of that quote... Here's my question: Are you grinding towards marginal improvement or battling irrelevance everyday towards perfection?