Four Leadership Lessons I learnt while running the Comrades

By Nunben Dixon, Head of Operations: Gumtree Auto

Running a marathon is tough, but an ultra-marathon even more so. I have run the Comrades several times now and it doesn’t get easier. Twice the length of a traditional marathon (with an extra 5kms to boot), giant hills, the heat and the humidity all make for a daunting race. I’ve realized that in running (like in business), reaching the finish line is not about your personality or the distance or the terrain.  It is about your strategy.

  1. Play to your strengths

Ultras are long and arduous. Here’s the thing about distance: it’s a great equalizer. I’ve completed racers where faster runners, stronger runners, fitter runners and younger runners than I have dropped out. The smarter runner is almost always the better runner, the one who knows when to speed up, when to utilise their strengths and how to work around their weaknesses.

Our team regularly outperforms global peers – with more staff, more resources and more favourable metrics on their side.  We don’t confuse our limitations with weakness. We play to our strengths.  I know which of my sales staff are “hunters” and which are “farmers”. I know our customers. I make sure I strategize with the resources I have, not the ones I wish I had, as a runner and as a leader. It pays to box smartly.

  1. Know what you are going to do before you even start

I have a goal in mind long before the starting pistol goes off. Whether it’s to finish the race, reach a certain time or merely to enjoy myself – I know what I’d like to achieve and I commit to it fully, no matter what. When you don’t, that’s when doubt creeps in. When you lose your focus, you open up the window to that nagging inner voice in your head that gives you permission to quit. Your ego starts congratulating you for being so bold as to shrug off the race. It tells you, you can do better next time. With more training. That it’s not important.

It’s the same in every tough situation, including work. When sales and morale are low, when the company isn’t doing well, when you are facing with tough calls and challenges, it’s easy to give up, to tell yourself that you’ve done all that you are capable of and that it is time to move on. When you make a commitment to see things through, your staff will pick up on it and climb the hills with you.

  1. Don’t buy into your own hype

Comrades marathon runners will often warn you about “second year syndrome”. The first time you run, you analyse every incline. You train harder. You prepare mentally and physically. But once you have completed a race, you tend to relax ever so slightly. You question whether you should go through quite so much effort. It is an attitude that can sneak up in Year Two or Year Ten, in running and in life.

The truth is that past achievements and accolades are in the past. Every year comes with new challenges. Your team can easily differentiate between hype and self-promotion and true grit and determination – and so can your customers. You need to stay restless and prepared.

  1. Don’t peak too early

I don’t buy into the strategy of “quick wins”, a rapid and visible contribution to the company for the sake of appearances. As leaders we want to prove ourselves quickly, but often times the rush to impress trips us up. Sure, you get the outcome you wanted, but the process isn’t pretty and often times the fallout can have unforeseen repercussions. Clients don’t buy into hype and bursts of success. If you want them to be with you for the long haul, you’ve got to understand their needs before you lock onto a quick-fix solution.


Tackling any large task whether it is a gruelling 90-kms, a challenging financial year or organisational change, should start with your thinking. Strategize, plan and keep your eye on the finish line. It’s worth it in the end.

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