If you have ever watched a track competition, whether it be at the Summer Olympics or at a high school track meet, you will most likely remember the race starter. You know, the individual who gets the runners organized at the beginning of the race and gets to say “On your marks, get set, go!”? In doing a little research on this position, I found the following excerpt from the Montana High School Association: “The primary goal of any competent starter must be to ensure all runners receive a fair and equal start for each race. The Golden Rule for all track and field officials should be: No athlete is allowed to gain an unfair advantage, and no athlete should have to suffer an unfair disadvantage.
The atmosphere at the start of a race can be one of ease and calm or one of confusion, based on the approach and the actions of the starter at the starting line. A competent starter is able to take command and remain calm throughout the starting process. This begins with the ability to give clear, precise instructions and the ability to give the starting commands in a strong, but calm voice. This in turn will help relax the competitors and make them feel confident in the starter. If the athletes feel confident that the starter will provide a clean, fair start for everyone, without any quirks or distractions, that is one less thing they have to worry about, which allows them to focus more attention on their race. A good self-evaluation for starters (and any other official) is if they leave the meet unnoticed, then it’s a job well done. The attention should always be on the athletes.” Now that’s true leadership.
Nowhere in this description does it say the starters should tell the athletes how to line up or how to run. They simply provide an equal opportunity environment for all runners to succeed, outline clear directions at the start and then let them run. Effective people leaders are similar to race starters, they lead and then get out of the way. Let’s examine this at a deeper level, using the starter’s race commands.
On your marks
When the starter says, ‘On your marks’, this signals the runners to come to their starting blocks and get ready for the race. Think of this as the “ready” command. This is where a clear picture is provided of the anticipated goal. When a runner gets on their mark, they can see a clear picture of the track ahead of them, the distance they have to run to complete the race, the other runners in the race and other resources around them like their coach or the crowd in the stands. Leaders get their team ready and on their marks by providing vision. This means a very clear picture of where the team is heading and a view of what success looks like. Runners are very clear that they have to run the distance and cross the finish line to be successful.
The set command tells the runner to get on their starting blocks and position themselves to run. I liken this command to the time when a leader provides expectations surrounding the desired outcomes and boundaries within which the team is to work. Expectations include things like specific actions or results, timelines for beginning and completing, service levels, and people or organizations that are included in the process. Boundaries provide direction around budgets, company policies to be considered and resource constraints. Setting the direction for your team allows individuals to clearly understand the position from which they can approach the task at hand and allows them to position themselves for success.
Usually, the starter fires a gun to signal the runners to RUN! While I don’t recommend leaders using guns to get their teams in motion, I do recommend telling them to proceed. And just like the starter does not join the race, neither does the leader get into the project or day to day activities of their team members. Leaders trust that their teams can find the best ways to achieve the goals within the parameters that have been set. There are only two times a leader could join the race:
- when the team asks for help to remove roadblocks or provide direction or
- when the team is not meeting a desired outcome and needs direction and encouragement.
Starters assume that the athletes have what it takes to finish or win the race. Leaders have that same confidence in their teams. People leaders lead and get out of the way. Just like the starter of a track and field race, leaders direct their teams to get on their marks, get set and go!