In 2003, Charlie Wetzel, my long-time collaborator, decided he wanted to tackle a goal he had held for more than a decade. At the time he was a regular runner who averaged twelve to twenty miles a week and ran two or three 10K races every year, so he picked the Chicago marathon and decided to go for it.
Do you think Charlie just showed up at the starting line in downtown Chicago on race day and said, “Okay, I guess it’s time to figure out how to run a marathon”? Of course not. He started doing his homework a year in advance. He read reviews of marathons held around the United States and learned that the Chicago marathon—held in October— enjoys great weather most years. It utilizes a fast, flat race course. It has a reputation for having the best fan support of any marathon in the nation. It was the perfect place for a first-time marathoner.
He also started learning how to train for a marathon. He read articles. He searched Web sites. He talked to marathon runners. He even recruited a friend who had run two marathons to race with him in Chicago on October 12. And, of course, he trained. He started the process in mid-April, increasing his mileage every week and eventually working his way up to two training runs of twenty miles each in addition to his other sessions. When race day came around, he was ready— and he completed the race.
Leadership is very similar. If you want to succeed, you need to learn as much as you can about leadership before you have a leadership position. When I meet people in social settings and they ask me what I do for a living, some of them are intrigued when I say I write books and speak. And they often ask what I write about. When I say leadership, the response that makes me chuckle most goes something like this: “Oh. Well, when I become a leader, I’ll read some of your books!” What I don’t say (but want to) is: “If you’d read some of my books, maybe you’d become a leader.”
Good leadership is learned in the trenches. Leading as well as they can wherever they are is what prepares leaders for more and greater responsibility. Becoming a good leader is a lifelong learning process. If you don’t try out your leadership skills and decision-making process when the stakes are small and the risks are low, you’re likely to get into trouble at higher levels when the cost of mistakes is high, the impact is far reaching, and the exposure is greater. Mistakes made on a small scale can be easily overcome. Mistakes made when you’re at the top cost the organization greatly, and they damage a leader’s credibility.
How do you become the person you desire to be? You start now to adopt the thinking, learn the skills, and develop the habits of the person you wish to be. It’s a mistake to daydream about “one day when you’ll be on top” instead of handling today so that it prepares you for tomorrow. As Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden said, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” If you want to be a successful leader, learn to lead before you have a leadership position.