Leaders Never Act in a Vacuum

Gail and I ran the Country Music Half Marathon yesterday. It was my third race and Gail’s first. I didn’t achieve my best time ever; in fact, it was my worst. But given the fact that the temperature was in the 80s for most of the morning, I was just pleased that we were able to complete the race.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/, Image #10614952

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/fredfroese

The truth is that I almost didn’t start. I had a brutal schedule last week. On Monday, I spoke to a class at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. On Tuesday, we had our Thomas Nelson quarterly Board Meeting. On Wednesday, we had our quarterly Business Review Meetings with our extended leadership team. In addition, we had dinner with an important literary agent and his wife, who also spent the night with us.

On Thursday, we had an ECPA Board Meeting (via phone) and our quarterly All Employee Meeting. On Friday, we had executives in from an out-of-town company to discuss a strategic partnership. That evening I spoke to the New Hope Academy “Half Marathon Team Meeting” before the race. In between all of these meetings, I managed to sandwich in another ten meetings.

By mid-week I was starting to run out of gas. I had also been struggling with a sinus infection that had dogged me for about three weeks. During this time, my training for the half marathon had fallen apart. So on Wednesday I quietly decided I was going to bail on the half marathon. I spoke with Gail about it; she concurred, especially in light of the fact that I was leaving for California a few hours after the race and for Africa the next week. It seemed like the reasonable thing to do.

So I called Megan, my oldest daughter, who was also the race coordinator for New Hope Academy. She listened patiently and was exceedingly gracious. She said, “Dad, you do sound incredibly busy—and exhausted. Please do whatever you think you need to do. I love you and will support you.” I felt a tremendous sense of relief.

Later that evening, I got the following email from her:

Hey Dad,

I’ve been thinking about our conversation about the marathon earlier this evening. I have a couple thoughts that I want to share with you.

I completely understand why it seems like a reasonable decision to opt out of the race this year. However, as I’ve thought about the implications, I think it might be worth reconsidering.

I am concerned that backing out now creates a situation where people may question—even subconsciously—whether or not they can trust you. After all, you are the reason that most of your employees signed up to run the race in the first place. Without you, many of them wouldn’t have had the vision to think it was possible. They are following your leadership. I think it could strongly undermine the faith they have in you and could be incredibly demoralizing. I also think it gives people permission to back out.

When you promote the marathon next year, or for that matter, try to enroll your people in any initiative, I think backing out now could really work against you. It could cause people to doubt your sincerity and commitment to them and the cause you are promoting. I don’t think that’s what you’re after. Bottom line: I don’t think this decision is in alignment with who you are. You are about integrity, keeping your commitments, and showing-up.

I think you could walk the course and finish by 12:00 p.m., minimizing the physical impact dramatically and still allowing you to get out in time to do what you need to do. I realize it would be a big sacrifice, especially in light of the schedule you have had this week. But, I think it’s worth it.

I might be completely misguided in my sense of the situation. Regardless of what you do with my input, I love you and respect you deeply. It just seemed like the risk here was much greater if I didn’t say anything.

I love you,


The more I thought about Megan’s words, the more I saw the wisdom in them. I decided I would run the race after all. Her email created a shift in my thinking.

As leaders, we have to set the pace. We never act in a vacuum. Others are watching. We have to keep our commitments—even when we overcommit. (I realize that this may not always be possible, especially when our health is at stake.) Everything we do has implications—for ourselves, for our people, and for the future we are trying to create.

I am very grateful that Megan had the courage to speak up. Her email helped me see what was at stake. It also gave me just the boost I needed to keep my commitment and finish the race. I’m really glad that I did.

Question: Where are you tempted to quit? What is at stake? What does finishing make possible for you and for those you lead?

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