Why the Best Leaders Don’t Always Win the Race


Running is a sport many people participate in recreationally while understanding little about the strategies advanced teams rely on to finish first. I remember a few years ago when my husband — who ran for the University of Arizona’s track and cross country teams — explained to me the role of the pacesetter in team distance running and how this person is essential to a team’s success. I probably didn’t understand everything he told me since I have never been a competitive runner, but here is what I took away from our conversation.

While training for a big race, teams devise a pace plan and select a pacesetter — someone with a steady stride and sound mind — to run in front and set the target speed. When raceday comes, the team follows the pacesetter, keeping his or her beat and saving stamina by drafting behind. The pacesetter has to be aware of where the pack is and helps them hit the correct splits. At the designated time, the pacesetter — who was not necessarily selected for speed but for reliability — will allow faster teammates to pass and use the energy they saved to push for the finish line.

After explaining to me the role of the pacesetter, my husband concluded by saying: “The pacesetter is the leader even if he doesn’t win the race. He sacrifices so the whole team can finish well.”

We see in this example three main ideas:

  1. Leaders go first, for a time. Pacesetters begin a race in front, but they don’t always finish there. Until the time is right, they need to be where the rest of the team can see them and follow their example. When the team is ready, the leader lets the pack extend into their fullest, freest stride.
  2. Leaders keep their team accountable. Pacesetters know the game plan and don’t deviate from it. They get where they need to be right when they need to be there, keeping everyone responsible for running at the right pace.
  3. Leaders humble themselves in order to elevate their teammates. Leaders are willing to sacrifice their chance to win in order to see their team finish at its best. The team’s time, not an individual victory, is their prize.

These components combine to offer a beautiful example of a leader — someone who uses a position of influence to lift up and benefit the group. The pacesetter manages the team’s progress, giving of themselves physically and psychologically, and then steps out of the way. Pacesetters demonstrate that stewardship and service are at the heart of leadership.


Photo credit: Shannon Digital Imaging

  • Lesley

    Great thoughts, Tammy! Love you…grateful for your wisdom.

  • http://www.tamarapowell.com/ Tamara Powell

    Thanks friend. Loved talking with you about this at small group. Thanks for all you’ve taught me about leadership.

  • http://www.tamarapowell.com/ Tamara Powell

    Thanks friend. Loved talking about this with you at small group. Thankful for all you have taught me about leadership.