All Leadership Is Local


I was asked to speak at the kickoff for the Detroit Free Press Flagstar Marathon.  I was stunned by the number but especially the longevity of the volunteers.  The Marathon is celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall, and many volunteers at the event had been working for 15, 20, even all 29 years.  Such longstanding commitment only happens with good leadership.  To sustain such commitment, leadership must ensure that the event is well organized.  Leadership must generate a sense of achievement and growth –the Detroit Marathon has been the country’s fastest-growing marathon for the past five years.  And there must be a strong spirit of camaraderie – a spirit that was palpable at the kickoff.  The room had the distinct feel of a family reunion.

Pat Ball, the executive director, is the kind of humble leader who would say that her event is good and growing precisely because of those volunteers.  That is literally true; Pat manages the event with a paid staff of two.  Two people – for an event that ranges across 26 miles, twice crosses an international border, features numerous bands, coordinates multiple charitable partners, entertains elite runners from around the world, fields a medical team, runs a website, and then hosts well over 15,000 runners. Volunteers pull it off, but you don’t recruit, engage, and retain and deploy that army, without incredible leadership “from the top.”

Tip O’Neill was fond of saying “all politics is local.”  Pat Ball typifies the fact that “all leadership is local.”  Here’s one way.  Before the kickoff event, I looked at the agenda, and went “oh no, this is going to last forever.”  As the keynote speaker I figured people would be exhausted by the time it was my turn. Sure enough Pat went through multiple categories of people who needed thanks: new corporate sponsors, old corporate sponsors, big sponsors, small sponsors, runners, former directors, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, and about different 20 categories of volunteers.  Many she invited to say a few words.  Others she had special gifts for.  Clearly each was special to her.  The thought occurred to my been-to-too-many-events-mind: Do we have to applaud for each specific individual she names?  But, as I looked around, people seemed totally engaged.  No one was leaving.  And it seemed that nearly everyone was enjoying the tremendous attention that Pat paid to so many of these individuals, as she told stories or made a point of thanking them for very specific contributions they had made.

Just about any other leader I know would at some point have uttered those famous words of efficiency:  “ladies and gentlemen, please hold your applause until I finish reading all of the names.” But not Pat.  Each person had their moment.  It was then it occurred to me: no wonder it feels like a family reunion here.  No wonder these people come back year after year after year.  No wonder this marathon is the fastest growing marathon in the country.  Who wouldn’t want to work for Pat Ball?  As I suspect Pat or her volunteers would correct me, they don’t work “for” Pat Ball, but “with” Pat Ball.  She portrays the two characteristics that Jim Collins in Good to Great says belong to the Level Five leader:  “quiet humility” and “fierce resolve.”

It’s a great joy to watch a fine leader in action with her team.  I hope the example I have offered this morning helps you to

Lead with your best self,