Running legend Grete Waitz passed away—much too soon—at age 57 in April, after a six-year battle with cancer. Waitz’s accomplishments are truly extraordinary: she won the New York City Marathon a record nine times, setting a world record in her very first attempt at running the grueling 26.2 miles, in 1978. She won the London Marathon twice, the gold medal at the 1983 World Championships Marathon, and earned a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics. She is credited with single-handedly popularizing the sport for women. Mary Wittenberg, president of the New York Road Runners (organizer of the New York City Marathon), said of Waitz, “She was the first big time female track runner to step up to the marathon and change the whole sport.”
However, I’m not writing about Grete Waitz because she was a sports superstar. My purpose here is to write about Grete Waitz the super human being. In addition to her many accomplishments, she was widely known for being approachable, giving, and above all, humble. She was a role model, not just for athletes, but for anyone who hopes to leave the world a better place for having lived. She was, as they say, a real mensch.
One great lesson we can learn from Grete dates back to her decision to participate in the 1992 New York City Marathon, two years after she had decided that she’d run in the event for the last time. She decided to run the course one more time, to accompany her old friend Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon and the man who first invited her to leave her home in Oslo to run in New York City. Lebow was 60 years old and suffering from brain cancer. Picture it: there was Waitz, an elite runner who was used to winning; used to running as fast as her well-trained body could carry her, running side by side with her dear friend, who although in a temporary remission from his cancer, was obviously challenged by the undertaking.
Waitz and Lebow ran the entre race together, finishing in 5:32:35—twice Waitz’s usual time. She said of the experience: “He gave me the strength to run, but it was very hard to run so slowly with him for more than five hours.”
The New York Times described their unforgettable appearance at the finish line: “They finished with their hands clasped and raised over their heads. She would always call it her 10th victory in New York.” Lebow died two years later.
How does this sports story relate to the world of business? Let’s admit the obvious: the workplace—like the world of a long distance runner—can be a lonely place. It can also be a selfish place. (They don’t call business the rat race for nothing.) Especially in today’s challenged economy, where there is so much competition for high-paying jobs, it’s tempting to think only of ourselves. Everyone wants to look good, make their numbers, and bring the greatest value to the organization. And that’s fine—to a point.
Certainly, no one can afford to do less than stellar work. But sometimes, like Grete Waitz, we need to slow down our pace to help someone else. Yes, there are plenty of occasions when it’s quicker and easier to complete a task yourself rather than take the time to explain the process to a subordinate. In a world where patience is a limited commodity and technology offers a constant flow of instant information, we understandably become frustrated when things take longer than expected. But there are times, as Grete’s running in that final marathon shows us, when expediency and personal glory should take a backseat.
If you’re a leader, manager, or salesperson at the top of your game, ask yourself: Are there times when I can take more time to accomplish a task so that I can share my knowledge and expertise with someone younger and less experienced? Am I secure enough in my own abilities to occasionally forgo glory so that I can help someone else shine? Am I interested in leaving a true legacy that lives on in the achievements of all the people I’ve helped find their way?
The answers aren’t easy. It takes a big person—what some might call a hero—to deflect the spotlight onto someone else. Grete Waitz was such a hero. Fred Lebow called her “the queen of the road.” “But,” he continued, “She doesn’t behave like a monarch.” That’s the key: if you’re a true superstar, you’ve got nothing to prove.
Grete Waitz’s legacy continues in many ways. There’s her foundation, Active Against Cancer, which she founded in 2007 to sponsor runners and to support cancer hospitals and patient centers. There is the ongoing work she did for Fred Lebow’s cancer charity, Fred’s Team. There is the great inspiration she provides to thousands of girls and women who lace up their running shoes every day. But for me, someone who runs only to catch a bus or train, her enduring legacy is this: the image of her crossing the 1992 marathon finish line, hand in hand with Fred Lebow after five and a half hours, exhausted and triumphant.