Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope

This month is the fortieth anniversary of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope run through our community — Waterloo Region. Having lost a leg to cancer, Terry Fox embarked on a cross-Canada run to raise money for cancer research. Terry’s shuffle-and-hop running style took him about 42 kilometers or 26 miles per day! I think jogging for 30 minutes in the morning is pretty good. Some people train for months to run a single marathon (26 miles). Terry ran a marathon a day for 143 days — on an artificial leg! When asked how he kept himself going out with thousands of miles ahead of him, he replied, “I just keep running to the next telephone pole.”

Tragically, cancer spread to his lungs, and he was forced to abandon his run. A few months later, he died. His inspiring legacy continues to this day in annual Terry Fox runs that have raised tens of millions of dollars for cancer research.

Terry came to mind when I read Bill Taylor’s article, “To Solve Big Problems, Look for Small Wins.” He writes, “It is tempting, during a crisis as severe as the Covid-19 pandemic, for leaders to respond to big problems with bold moves… (But) the best way for leaders to move forward isn’t by making sweeping changes but rather by embracing a gradual, improvisational, quietly persistent approach to change.”

In “The Power of Small Wins” Harvard professor Teresa Amabile and researcher and consultant Steven Kramer discovered the best way to motivate people is to “help them take a step forward every day…nothing contributed more to a positive inner work life (the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that is critical to performance) than making progress in meaningful work…the key is to learn which actions support progress — such as setting clear goals, providing sufficient time and resources, and offering recognition.”

Strong leaders build on successes and string together incremental gains to boost short-term confidence for the long-term journey. Recognizing and celebrating successes and small wins is energizing.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Celebrate progress and look for steps in the right direction that you and the team can build on.
  • Periodically list what’s going well or list your team’s accomplishments. Use it as the basis for celebrations, appreciation, and recognition.
  • Give everyone lots of information and feedback and make it as transparent and visible as possible.
  • Ensure senior managers are leading efforts to recognize, celebrate, and appreciate small wins.
  • Make recognition immediate. Otherwise, the excitement or connection to why it was significant will be lost.
  • Provide plenty of training, follow-up, encouragement, and personal examples for leaders to give personal one-on-one recognition and thanks.
  • Focus on helping people and teams leverage their strengths. Align/assign work and/or remove barriers to allow people to do more of what they do best.
  • Develop “walls of fame,” “alcoves of excellence,” or posting pictures, awards, performance/achievement charts, appreciative letters, and success stories.

We know that one of the competencies leveraged by some extraordinary leaders is setting stretch goals. Terry Fox certainly set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) to run across Canada on an artificial leg. But then — as that puzzling metaphor recommends — he ate the elephant one bite at a time by running to the next telephone pole.

How’s your progress? Are you energizing your big challenges by celebrating your small wins?

Further Reading