In leadership classes we trainers like to talk about behavior vs. character. Character is important, we say, but you can’t see character. What you see is behavior, and that’s what really matters in organizations.
I might be the last runner on the planet to read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run; in fact, it seems that even most of my non-running friends have read it. (Better late than never.) The book is a non-fiction account of an ancient Mexican tribe called the Tarahumara, an obscure indigenous people dwelling in isolation in the rugged, remote Copper Canyon. To the extent they are known at all, they’re known for their incredible ability to run long distances, very fast, with sandals or no shoes at all, and with no chronic injuries.
McDougall’s book began with his attempt to solve his own running injury problems, and it touches on many themes: the evolutionary link between distance running and the survival of our species; the closing of the gender gap when it comes to pure endurance; what we can learn from the Tarahumara about nutrition; and the whole barefoot running movement, including an indictment of Nike for creating an industry out of weakening our running feet. But the best idea of all, in my opinion, is the link between compassion and running, between extreme endurance and just plain “being a better person.”
McDougall’s documentary style is a demonstration of that very character and integrity he wants to illustrate. Every personality in his story is painted in a grand, elaborate, storytelling style that eventually gets around to bringing out the best in each of them. By the end of the book, nearly everyone in the book is a hero we can believe in. Better yet, we understand what that has to do with running. In the case of Scott Jurek he becomes a world class runner because of the compassionate person he is, and the experience of caring for his ill mother that helped make him so. In the case of Jenn “Bruhita” Shelton, she runs to become a better person and despite her crazy party-style life, we see that she is a work in the making. Barefoot Ted, whom we suspect will ruin the initial race with the Tarahumara by being too loud and self-absorbed, befriends a man who just lost his son and lifts him from his grief in the process. We see it all through McDougall’s eyes and it instructs us in the fine art of seeking and recognizing the best in other people at the same time that we’re watching the runners seeking the best in each other.
I can’t help but connect his message about character to Adam Grant’s message in Give and Take, which I just finished. As Grant divides the world into givers, takers and matchers, his central point is that givers come out on top in a very tangible sense. They build large networks of loyal people, invent great new products, and generally succeed in business and in their personal lives. When he delves more deeply into what constitutes a “giver,” it’s a person who gives with no expectations; a person who gives for the sheer joy of giving. It’s a good person with integrity and compassion for others, just like McDougall’s “mas locos” runners.
All this has made me reevaluate my leadership message. Character is behavior. We can see it, and it is inseparable from its expression in behavior. When I think about the greatest leaders I’ve ever known, it’s clear to me that they were not made of different stuff than their behavior. They gave to people in ways that made it obvious they loved to do it. They were compassionate in behavioral ways. Their character shone through their actions and there was never any question about them “faking” it. Just as McDougall’s runners can’t fake it; either they love to run or they don’t, and you can tell merely by checking to see if they have a smile on their face.