3 Ways to Develop Unstoppable Employees

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According to ancient Greek tradition, the inspiration for running marathons came from the fabled Greek solider Pheidippides who ran the distance from a battlefield near the city of Marathon all the way to Athens - roughly 26 miles - to declare Greece's victory over the invading Persian armies.

Unfortunately, according to the myth, Pheidippides died immediately after delivering the news.

With death as a potential, albeit extreme, outcome it's a small wonder that very few people ever complete a marathon in their lifetime. In fact, according to Running USA's 2014 report 514,000 Americans - or 0.0017 percent - of the population have finished an endurance race of 26.2 miles. 

However, there are some important lessons regarding the development and harnessing of an unstoppable workforce that leaders and business owners can learn from this arduous athletic endeavor.

I recently wrote about my efforts to train for the Disney Marathon Weekend where I intended to complete a half marathon run (13.1 miles) on a Saturday and a full marathon run (26.2 miles) the next day. This past weekend I successfully finished both races at Walt Disney World.

Related: Marathon Runners Make Better CEOs, Study Finds

More than 40,000 participants took part in either or both runs. Over the weekend, I gained some interesting insight into motivation and why people do difficult things.

None of us runners were compensated for the miles we logged or the physical and mental punishment we endured during our months of training. In fact, each of us paid hundreds of dollars in fees just to participate---not even counting the cost of travel, food and lodging.

So, why do we do it? What kind of competitive advantage would a business have if it could somehow harness that "why?"

Here are three reasons that I witnessed firsthand as to why marathoners do what they do---and those reasons have nothing to do with compensation.

1. Affiliation.

There is nothing quite like the anxious expectancy of waiting along with thousands of other runners in the pre-dawn hours of a crisp morning all with a single focus and intent. Each of us trained dozens of hours and logged hundreds of miles in preparation for a particular event.

The first goal that unifies us is to finish the course. The next is to achieve that goal without sustaining a serious injury. The next is to achieve a personal best completion time. There is a primal unity that surrounds such simple goals and the rigorous commitment of time, energy and endurance necessary to achieve those goals. A marathon is bigger than any of us, but without each of us individuals choosing to run together---it's not a marathon, it's just a run.

There is a profound cohesion and comradery that occurs on race day. Businesses that are able to unify employees around simple, yet challenging goals that require effort and commitment may have a distinct advantage over competitors.

2. Affirmation.

Marathoners run for a thousand different reasons but every reason is life affirming.

Specifically, distance racers will frequently run with biographic signs attached to their backs or their stories written on their shirts. This weekend was no exception.

The back of one shirt I saw stated that the runner was a 55-year-old open-heart surgery survivor but he had every intention of staying ahead of whomever was reading his story. Another was a three-time breast cancer survivor who would beat the marathon the same way she beat cancer, one step at a time. A couple I saw wore matching shirts that featured a photo and name of their 4-year-old son, Jacob, who died from leukemia. They were raising money to set up a foundation in their son's name.

There were hundreds of others as well, but every stated reason to run was life affirming whether the racer was affirming their own life or the life of another.

If an organization can harness that level of personal, individualized passion, and not merely see employees as interchangeable cogs in a machine, they will have a doggedly loyal employee base that will break down walls to achieve collective goals.

Related: Marathon Man: The Driving Force Behind a Community Revival

3. Recognition.

This is such a fundamental need of every human being, but companies tend to do a lousy job of recognizing the best, brightest, smartest and hardest-working employees.

We stayed in Disney for three days after the last race was run. At every Disney theme park we visited the runners who completed their respective races wore their medals proudly around their necks everywhere they went. They wore them in the restaurants, riding rides, reading books on hotel porches, riding the Disney buses. It didn't matter what they were doing, they wore their medals.

They did it because they wanted to be noticed, and they wanted the  99.9983 percent of the population who didn't complete a marathon that weekend to ask them about the experience. They wanted to be recognized for their achievement, dedication and sacrifice that the medal embodied. The medal symbolized their story and they wanted to share it with everyone willing to ask.

Sincere recognition programs are difficult to execute especially for large organizations where the annual performance management process (PMP) is a soulless exercise in box checking and automated efficiency. 

The companies that are able to implement meaningful recognition programs that inspire, honor and celebrate workers for their unique differences, contributions and creative solutions will go a long way towards eliminating retention and recruiting issues that many organizations are now facing.

While there are certainly dozens of motivating factors that contribute to employee morale, performance and job satisfaction---the three listed above are unique. 

I witnessed and experienced each factor firsthand and how they drive marathoners to invest ridiculous amounts of time and energy, risking physical injury---even tempting death---without anything in return other than those three abstract ideals.

Smart leaders will find a way to build a culture around each or all of those intangibles for the sake of their employees and the sake of their business.

Related: 10 Quotes to Get You Through the Marathon of Entrepreneurship