What the Boston Marathon Bombing Heroes Teach Us About Leadership

April 17, 2017, 10:00 AM UTC
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “What quality does every great leader have in common?” is written by Tom Grilk, chief executive officer of the Boston Athletic Association/Boston Marathon.

We will never forget the horrors that so many endured during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. But the image I remember most clearly from that day is of athletes who had just finished running a marathon giving immediate help to the injured and frightened, alongside trained first responders and spectators. They rose above the terrifying distractions that were present to focus on the needs of the injured.

As I reflect on the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attack, I realize that those athletes were not just physically fit and courageous. They were exemplary leaders, demonstrating a soundness and clarity of mind that can help us to overcome anything, no matter how challenging or unexpected.

In the middle of a terrifying experience, these athletes brought forth a sense of purpose and focus that comes with clarity of thought. They didn’t panic. They absorbed the terrifying clamor of what was happening around them, and almost instantly acted to help those in danger and save lives. Their minds were trained to focus only on what was important.

These athletics demonstrated three crucial skills essential to strong leadership. First, they could swiftly absorb all facts and variables presented by a problem, and then call up the essential information and relevant experience to arrive at a solution. Second, they had the ability to keep their heads when everyone around them was panicking.

Third, they had the ability to separate their thoughts from their surroundings. I think of this as the creation of a “private zone” where one’s thinking moves to a different realm. One is still connected to reality, but generates a separating sense of privacy amid turmoil and uncertainty.

All three of these characteristics combine to form a single state that one can create for oneself. In Latin, it is known as Mens sana in corpore sano, or “a sound mind in a sound body.” And while it speaks to the importance of physical fitness generally, it’s also a guidepost to handling the accelerating stresses and challenges of our fast-paced and unpredictable world.

So how do we achieve that state? For me and many others, it comes in the middle of a run. For others, it could be on the bicycle, in the pool, or at the gym. After about 10 minutes or so of getting loose and shaking out little aches, one’s thinking rises above the road or trail and moves to a quieter and clearer realm.

When we engage in any physical activity that pushes us, we train not only our bodies, but our minds. We are creating neurological shortcuts that lead us to our private zone of clear thinking. The more often we push ourselves, the easier it can be to get back to that clear thinking state when we need it.

This private zone helps us lead by slowing down the world around us. In the face of a challenge, instead of jumping to a rash conclusion out of haste, a clear mind lets us look honestly at the context and judge it from a detached perspective. This is necessary to promptly craft the best solution to any problem.

It also happens to be the opposite of what many would-be leaders do while stressed. They react too quickly, relying on flawed or incomplete information and acting on their emotions. They could learn something from those courageous Boston Marathon runners.

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