Leadership is Dirty

mint julip drink

Saturday was the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. The winner? Justify. The location? Louisville, Kentucky. The sport? Horse racing.

We lived in Kentucky when I worked for Amazon, Zappos specifically. I commuted back and forth between Lexington and Louisville (Shepherdsville). On my route I passed stunningly beautiful, majestic and pastoral horse farms. Some of the stables cost millions of dollars and were nice in the same way a 5-Star resort in Bali or Aspen is nice. These stables housed thoroughbreds that were treated better than the vast majority of people, even in 1st world countries. Amazing.

When we first moved to Kentucky (from the Philippines), we were told there are three “things” that define Kentucky. We learned by personal experience that this was only a slight exaggeration. The three? Basketball (Wildcats), Bourbon, and Horse Racing.

The Derby. Wealth. Gambling. Hats. Mint juleps. Outrageous suits and dresses. Bowties. Private jets. And, at least yesterday, rain! It was a record-setting day for rain. On the first Saturday in May (when the Derby is run), for the last 144 years, there has never been so much rain. Over 3 inches!

A few confessions. While I’ve been to a horse race at Churchill Downs, the site of the Derby, I’ve not actually been to the Derby. Nor have I been to a race at Lexington’s home track, Keeneland — an arguably “prettier” track if not as historic. Full disclosure, I’m not a horse-racing fan or even a big fan of horses. Yes, I want to like them. But they’ve always bitten, thrown, or misbehaved around me. Perhaps if I owned a horse farm or took lessons from a gifted trainer or horse “whisperer,” horses and I would get along. In the meantime, I’ll admire their beauty from afar and dream of being a cowboy who can ride like the wind.

But I do enjoy watching the most exciting 2 minutes in sports each May. It’s quite a spectacle. The colorful jockeys. The strong, muscular thoroughbreds. The celebrities and athletes. The traditions. Unlike the Super Bowl, the World Series or the World Cup final, the race is brief. Two quick minutes and it’s over. Winner declared. Fortunes made and lost.

During yesterday’s 144th running, it was apparent how muddy the track was after torrential rains. The jockeys and horses at the back were covered in mud. But even Justify and his rider, near the front for the entire race, got dirty, and had to run through the mud.

Leadership is like this, at least great leadership. Sometimes life is muddy, dirty, rainy. Sometimes it’s just a mess at work, home and school. Great leaders know that to reach the finish line, they’ve got to push through, persevere, and ignore the discomfort. Yes, it would much easier to run on a dry track. No mud. No dirty goggles. No grit in your teeth. But then life isn’t always sunny and dry. Sometimes you have to run the race in the mud. The other option? Stay in the gate. Stay home. Stay in bed. Live in the bubble. But great leaders overcome the obstacles. They ignore the rain and the mud. They run their race. They focus on the finish line.

Hope you have a great week. Demonstrate perseverance when the track is muddy, when it’s rainy and when your goggles are dirty. Stay focused, ignore the distractions and be a great leader.

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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