What leaders can learn from Iron War

An ironman triathlon is arguably the toughest one-day endurance event on planet Earth. Ironman started in 1979, with three athletes arguing (over a beer of course) about who the fittest athlete was. The 3.8km swimmer. The 180km cyclist. Or the 42.2km runner. 

There was only one solution. To put all three together and do them at the same time. And since that first event in 1979, the sport has become an institution for triathletes everywhere. With the pinnacle of the sport being the Hawaii Ironman World Championships, held every October in Kona. 

The 1989 Ironman World Championship was perhaps the greatest Ironman race ever. In a spectacular duel that became known as the Iron War, the world’s two strongest athletes raced side by side at world-record pace for a gruelling 139 miles. 

Mark Allen, the calm, controlled, and composed athlete, was trying to win his first Ironman world championship. Allen used technology, like heart rate monitoring and specific training programs. Dave Scott was the opposite. He was hard core. His philosophy was to go out and bust yourself up… every session. No science.  

Allen had never beaten Scott in Hawaii. Some people thought he never would. Allen finished second in 1986 and 1987, behind Scott. 

So, Allen came up with a strategy. His plan was to race on Scott’s shoulder for the whole race. For the whole eight hours.  

Mark Allen and Dave Scott raced shoulder to shoulder through Ironman’s 3.8km swim, 180km bike race, and 42.2km marathon. After 8 punishing hours, both men would demolish the previous record – and cross the finish line a mere 58 seconds apart (Credit: Matt Fitzgerald’s book, Iron War – worth a read if you love this sport, or you love the human species). 

The strategy worked. Mark Allen won that race, to grab his first world title. He won it with a burst of energy, through an aid station in the final stages of the race.  

What can we learn, as leaders, from this type of commitment to a cause? 

1. Change the strategy, not the goal 

For Mark Allen, he needed a strategy that worked. He and Scott had raced each other plenty of times, with Allen always coming in after Scott.  

The goal to win the world championship never changed. The strategy changed. Until it worked, and the goal was achieved. Never change the goal, adapt the strategy. 

For leaders, and for leadership teams, this is an important point, as there will be hurdles. There will be obstacles. There will be challenges. That doesn’t mean you give up on your goal. It means that you are building resilience along the way. And that you are getting closer with every attempt.  

2. Tune out the noise 

There will be detractors. There will be dissenters. There will be disapproval.  

And if your why is strong enough, you will be able to tune out these voices, even when some of them are your own. As a leader or leadership team, you will be exposed to negativity. Noise. Nonsense. 

Set yourself up for success and have a positive mindset. One that does not get distracted. 

For Mark Allen, there was a single-minded focus that drove his behaviour, and that got him to the finish line first during the Iron War. Imagine for a moment how many people would have thought that after trying so many times previously that he might never beat Dave Scott.  

But Allen didn’t listen to that noise. That would have distracted him from the mission. 

3. Rinse, repeat and reproduce 

Fun fact – Mark Allen won that event in 1989, then again in 1990, then again in 1991, then again in 1992, then again in 1993. Before 1989, Allen couldn’t beat Scott. He then won five world championships in a row. He certainly rinsed, repeated, and reproduced what worked.  

Fun fact again – an amazing Aussie Greg Welch won the event in 1994! Go Welchy!  

In relation to rinsing and repeating, the message is to find out what works, and do more of that. And find out what doesn’t and do less of that. Once you have the winning formula for your team, or your business, leverage that. Build on it and engrain it in your organisational culture.  

So that you keep getting great results. Like Mark Allen did. 

Footnote, this article has focused on Mark Allen’s strategy during Iron War, and what we can learn from that. It would not be right not to congratulate Dave Scott, too, who is one of the greatest athletes to ever do Ironman racking. Scott is a six-time world champion. A legend of the sport. And I was lucky enough to meet him at a race in Sydney some years ago.  

In summary, never give up on a goal. Change the strategy and keep cranking until you find the magic sauce. To do that, you will have to tune out the noise. And once you have worked out the strategy for success, rinse and repeat, so that you can reproduce the results you are committed to achieving.  

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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