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3 Important Leadership Lessons from Extreme Sports

Whether you are an athlete or not, endurance sports provide universal takeaways that are crucial for success as a founder and CEO.

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BY Sami Inkinen - 10 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Some argue that CEOs shouldn't get distracted by outside activities or personal hobbies. Focus is important, but I would argue that a variety of interests makes for a better life, a more creative person and a better CEO.

For me personally, I have transferred many crucial lessons from extreme endurance sports--including a record-breaking unsupported row across the Pacific Ocean, racing the Hawaii Ironman World Championship seven times, and becoming an age-group world champion--to my job as a CEO and founder.

These activities reflect my own passions, but even if endurance sports aren't your cup of tea, you can still adopt several techniques that will catapult you to personal and company success.

Be meticulous about taking care of yourself.

I used to carry my lack of sleep as a badge of honor when building my previous company, Trulia, almost ten years ago, until I realized that I was forgetting things (at the age of 30), not performing well in my triathlon racing and getting sick.

It may seem obvious, but no professional football player would prepare for the Super Bowl by pulling an all-nighter, eating bad food and going drinking. Too many CEO's still do that. Sleep, proper nutrition and physical health (and I'd argue fitness) makes you fit to build and run a company.

Focus on and celebrate improvement, not results.

After finishing each of my triathlon races, I didn't focus on the result. Instead, I took 10 minutes to think about three things I could improve and wrote down a simple plan to achieve them.

It took me about seven years and 50 races from my first race until I won the world championships in my age group. After every event, I came up with a plan to improve. I've now applied this to my business and my teams: we create playbooks for everything we do and relentlessly improve and iterate.

It's nice to celebrate a milestone, but what makes us successful in the long-term is the constant focus on improving. The compounding effect of improving 1 percent each day means you'll be more than 3700 percent better at year's end. With this approach, the winner is not the one with the best starting point but the one with the best rate of learning and improving.

Define and measure the right metrics.

While not optimal, the easiest way to prepare and complete a marathon with no running background is to give yourself a year and add a mile or two every week. The method of identifying and improving just a few metrics that matter is how my wife and I prepared, in under six months and with no rowing experience, to row unsupported across the Pacific Ocean. I use this exact same method with my team at Virta Health.

We define the key process or outcomes metrics and then get to work to improve them. The "how" is then left for the individual and teams to figure out and innovate.

Even if endurance sports aren't for you, don't fret. These lessons apply universally and can serve as the foundation of being successful as a CEO and founder.

See you on the race course.