I’ve only felt close to a physical altercation once while at Qumulo. I thought that Neal, my co-founder and the company’s VP of engineering, was going to punch me. We were running together, around Lake Union in Seattle, in our regular “run-on-one.”
We were disagreeing about previous predictions of a feature ship date. I claimed that a date had previously been estimated, and Neal said I was imagining it. Our conversation became an argument. I saw bloody murder in his eyes. Passersby may have been concerned to see two guys running along yelling at each other, but if they were, neither of us noticed.
We probably did that for half a mile or so. The madder we got, the faster we ran; the farther and faster we ran, the less we could argue. Over time the physical pain of the run started to shout down the emotional pain of the conflict.
Maybe because physical pain crowds out emotional pain, many CEOs, myself included, run.
Running is a physical activity that yields physical benefits. When you run, you make yourself healthier, more energetic, thinner, more attractive, more confident, less anxious, and happier. Ironically, given that the brain is the principal source of reasons not to run (mine is!), running triggers neurogenesis. Above all, the very real and physical wall of pain you quickly summon while running can make the emotional pain of running a company feel small.
These may be the reasons CEOs run — or at least the reasons they start running. But running is more than vanity. The emotional pain that accompanies running a company is often born of a sense of inadequacy. Running is a metaphor for that inadequacy.
An “elite runner” can put in five-minute miles for more than two hours straight. Being overtaken by one is otherworldly. If you’re feeling brave you can match her speed for a few minutes. Over those minutes your breathing grows loud and labored and searing pain suffuses your lungs, chest, and legs. As you reach exhaustion you get wobbly. As you watch the elite runner effortlessly accelerate away, your world is a roar of heartbeats, agony and trembling. You won’t hear her as she leaves you behind: She’ll be breathing quietly and calmly and her footfalls will be light and assured.
Most CEOs that train hard will eventually become okay or good — but never great — runners.
When you run a company, you do many jobs poorly, and you do each job long enough to find someone who does it well. You research products, model businesses, talk to customers, build products, market and sell them, raise money, borrow money, predict the results of sales, pitch suppliers, recruit teams, build teams, fire teams and buy and sell companies. Typically you are a novice at all but one or two of these things. Some CEOs pretend to be good at all of them and no doubt some are. Most are not.
When you run, you embrace an activity that you will likely never be great at. If you work really hard, you can be good. All you can count on is getting better. To run, and to lead a company, is to accept inadequacy while never accepting defeat.
If running is the career of leading a company, then runs are the performances that make the career.
You can’t predict a run. You don’t know whether it will rain. You don’t (always) know where you’re going to go. You don’t know if you’ll injure yourself or hit the wall or if you’ll be unusually strong. You don’t know how you’re going to feel halfway through. You don’t know if you’ll fail up the hills and coast down them, or power up the hills and stumble down them. You choose your companions for the run, and you push each other and grow with them. You might compete with someone along the way, but you can’t predict whom. Or you may run alone, left to your thoughts, focused on your own improvement. You may well have to fight yourself to get out there, and you’ll thank yourself for having gone. Once you’re halfway out on your run, quitting means sitting, in shame, smelling bad, on a bus. All you know for sure about a run is it’ll likely be painful, the first quarter mile will be the hardest, and you’ll probably be glad you did it.
As my run with Neal continued, I relented. “I don’t think I can run this fast and be this angry,” I panted. He looked at me amusedly. He was gracious, we came to an amicable resolution, and the conversation turned to less contentious topics.
The run was the room we had locked ourselves into until we’d reached agreement. The enclosure, exhaustion and endorphins carried us through our run: a metaphor for conflict opened, explored and closed.
To run, and to lead a company, is to accept that a career is a summation of performances, not all of which will be perfect, and not all of which will be fun. Each episode stretches from beginnings filled with apprehension, through trying long hauls, to satisfaction or disappointment at the end. Threaded together these performances make a journey. Leading a company is a threading-together of unpredictable things you probably aren’t great at. To expect more than this is to invite unhappiness; to do this day after day is to invite success.
Peter Godman is the co-founder and CEO of Qumulo. He brings 20 years of industry systems experience to Qumulo. As VP of engineering and CEO of Corensic, Peter brought the world’s first thin-hypervisor based product to market. As director of software engineering at Isilon, he led development of several major releases of Isilon’s award-winning OneFS distributed file system and was inventor of 18 patented technologies.