How To Use Discipline To Execute Strategy

“One minute to start!” said the announcer over the loud speakers.

I clicked my Nike running watch to “Stopwatch” mode. I wiped my sweaty brow one last time before the gun fired and I took a gulp of muggy, Charleston, SC air before forcefully exhaling.

My warm-up felt good, my shoes were broken in, and it looked like the rain would hold off long enough for me to run a dry race. There was nothing left to do but set my 10K (6.2 miles) personal record. Or, as runners refer to it, “PR.”

“Ten seconds to start,” boomed the announcer. “Good luck runners!”

It didn’t matter that I had run the Cooper River Bridge Run six previous times, I still had butterflies. My training, though grueling and thorough, was solo. This was a competition – something I hadn’t done in a while.

“Three… Two… One…!” The starting gun fired and I raced South with 40,000 fellow runners, walkers, and joggers.

I had finagled my way to the front with the sponsored Kenyan runners, former winners of the race, and other elite runners to get a better start. Pre-race I chatted with a guy who was, “shooting for 38 minutes.” These people were fast. I didn’t belong in the back, but I wasn’t quite in the same category as them.

I am a strategist. And like any forward-thinking person, I had a plan for how to run this race. My approach was based on my strengths, weaknesses, and final goals. I knew my physical limitations, but I was optimistic about how hard I could push myself.

Often times, when making plans, we don’t take into account what we’re good at and what we’re bad at. We think in a utopian world where laws of nature do not apply. We plan for people to work 80 hours when reality is different. We assume customers will pay certain prices without testing that theory. We even put ourselves in a bubble and neglect to analyze our competition.

However, I was (and still am) a seasoned runner and a veteran competitor. I knew that if I was going to PR, I needed to account for all that. More importantly, I needed to stay disciplined to execute my strategy.

My race started slow. People of all shapes, colors, and ages passed me like a rock sitting still while a river rushed around me. People ran near me, cut in front of me, and brushed past me. There were too many to count, but I estimate I saw the back of 1,000+ people’s heads.

I checked my watch at mile one; slightly faster than pace, but plenty of time to adjust. Part of my strategy was to start slow because I’m susceptible to burn out. My body will allow me to keep a fast pace, but only for so long.

Beginnings of races are filled with adrenaline and excitement. Had I been less disciplined about my approach, I would have tried to stay ahead of the pack. In business terms, I equate this to chasing every shining opportunity that comes your way. This may be setting up social media accounts before you have your first customer or it may be diversifying your business before any one clear path to profitability is carved out. Either way, discipline is required to stick to your plans. If you abandon them before you give them a chance to work, you’ve now wasted A) your time planning and B) your opportunity to let your plan work. There are times to pivot, but don’t pivot before you give your strategy a fair chance to succeed.

Every competitive fiber in my body screamed to keep up with the 8-year old kid and the 250-pound meathead who passed me. But we had over five and a half miles to run. My goal was not to beat everyone to the first mile marker, my goal was to finish as fast as I possibly could. If I succumbed to that urge, I could have jeopardized my chances.

How To Use Discipline To Execute Strategy

The “573-foot structure” is known as the Arthur Ravenel Bridge. And it’s big.

I slowed my pace in miles two and three so I could save energy and because I had a 573-foot structure to cross. Phase two of my plan initiated at the top of the bridge. I let out my stride to conserve energy and let the slope of the bridge carry me down. My pace sped up and I began passing some of the people who had previously overtaken me.

My legs were strong and the sun had forced me to shed a layer of clothing. My pace was on point, all I had to do was keep running at the same rate for the next two(ish) miles and I would PR. I looked up to the sunny sky and smiled at God, thanking Him for my physical abilities. I found my flow.

These are the enjoyable times. This is when your company is making money. This is when you don’t want anything to change. However, change is inevitable. If you decide to ignore the changing times like the book publishing industry has done, you won’t be profitable much longer. Change will come and you will be forced to adjust as an emergency plan. If you anticipate change, you can be the one who initiates it. A calculated, intentional modification to your strategy is more effective than a reaction to a problem. 

Somewhere in the last mile and half of the race, I passed a guy in blue. He was tall, had a scruffy beard, and looked like he had done this a few times. Our pace was similar and he didn’t let me get too far ahead. Within minutes he had overtaken my lead, a rare feat at this stage in my race.

I was faced with a dilemma: should I pivot my strategy to compete with this guy or should I keep my pace?

If I kept my pace, I would probably still PR. But it would be close. If I broke from my plans and let myself compete with this guy, one of two things would happen. A) I would crush my best time or B) I would burn out.

Strategy is typically most useful when times are difficult, like the beginning of the race. But sometimes, when things are going well, plans needs to be adjusted. You make adjustments when things are going well to keep them going well. Because like it or not, your competition – blue shorts in my case – sees you surpassing them and they are changing to keep up with you. In this case, discipline was needed to move away from my comfortable pace to push myself.

Blue shorts and I exchanged leads at least four more times within the last mile of the race. At one point our competition was so important that we traded encouraging words so we would both finish strong. In the end his long legs propelled him to a faster finish. I wasn’t mad, he pushed me to my best time. We swapped a congratulatory handshake after the race and I could tell from our brief talk that I had done something similar for him.

I’m proud of my accomplishment; it required discipline, hard work, and a little competitive fire, but I set a PR. I finished the 2016 Cooper River Bridge Run in 41:11, 244th overall.

Making plans requires forethought and planning. But executing strategy requires discipline to know when to stick to your plan and when to make adjustments. Condition yourself to know when, and how, you’ll pivot from your plans before the time comes. If not, you could end up modifying your plans at the wrong time and jeopardizing your chances for success.