We walked all but about two hundred yards of the two mile route that first practice in August. It was the first day of cross-country season and I was working with Shawn, a first year runner that had never participated in anything athletic before in his life. This fact however had little to do with Shawn’s desire, but more to do with the fact he was legally blind. Thanks to my work with this special individual, by the end of the cross-country season I had learned more about being an effective leader than I could possibly have learned in any course at the university. Most importantly I learned that individuals grow most when challenged to the point of discomfort.
Shawn had approached me in the spring about the possibility of running and I had responded enthusiastically. I wasn’t sure that he was going to actually show up that first practice in August, but he did. I decided to act as his guide-runner and coach for the season. We began by talking about what his goals were and what he thought he could do that first day. His goal was simple: compete in a cross-country meet and finish the course without walking. He had no idea what he was capable of that first day so we decided to just start running and figure it out as we went. As it turned out, Shawn was not capable of very much. There were cramps and wheezing along with the fear of falling as he ran blindly over uneven pavement.
As the season wore on, two hundred yards turned into four hundred, and four hundred gradually became a mile. There was still wheezing, cramps and the fear of falling, but there was also the exhilaration and joy of having run farther than the day before. Shawn continued to improve because he was continually uncomfortable. I ran everyday with Shawn, calling out the potholes and encouraging him to run farther than the day before. Sometimes he stumbled, once he fell.
As a teacher and aspiring principal, I was inspired by the courage that Shawn demonstrated and longed to understand the source of his drive. By mid-season, after having spent countless hours with Shawn, I finally asked him how he became so courageous. His response was simple: “I trust you to challenge and guide me”. His answer made the lesson of leadership clear to me: trust is the essential element for having people operate in a zone of discomfort.
In the second to last meet of the year, Shawn ran the entire five kilometer course without stopping. He would never win a race, but to my mind, there was no bigger winner.