Dr. Ricardo Montelongo

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Running: It’s More than Just Miles

Yesterday, I started my second season with a local running club.  At 7:00am, I committed myself to seven months of insanity.  I assume most people in the Houston area will think that this group is indeed crazy since the month of July usually does not provide welcoming weather for those who run.  Despite early morning start times, temperatures here can still be in the low 80’s with humidity percentages up in that same level.  Despite these conditions, the running club saw many new and returning members ready to begin their season in preparation for marathons and half-marathons in the upcoming months.  I started this new season thinking about what makes me and my fellow runners crazy enough to get up early to run several miles in these awful weather conditions (well, at least for me, it’s not the best weather).  On the second half of our first scheduled 4 mile run, I began to self-reflect on why the heck I was torturing myself to run in these conditions for the next few months?  I then started to observe my fellow runners around me and made note of behaviors that helped shaped some response to my question.  After a day of processing, I began to see my sport as a analogy to a topic I have a deep passion for in my education career:  leadership.

For twenty-five years, I have worked in higher education in a variety of roles at several different types of institutions.  During the course of my career, I have also held a variety of position levels that provided me skill and knowledge development in my work on college campuses.  Northouse (2016), in his comprehensive overview of leadership approaches and theories, starts his book addressing a question that many of us ask when we talk about leadership: “Are you born a leader?”  In its earliest form of scholarship, this question was addressed by first looking at traits held by individuals that prone them to become leaders.   However, as we began to understand that it takes more than charisma and influence to guide others to a goal, the knowledge was apparent that everyone had the ability to become effective and strong leaders (Northouse, 2016).  As you can read, even when I am in the midst of a sweaty morning run, my academic brain usually goes straight into action giving me interesting perspectives on how ordinary life becomes fascinating theory-to-practice scenarios.  So, in those last two miles of my club’s first scheduled run for the season, I developed an informal theory on leadership based on my experiences with the club (for those who want to know, it is Bay Area Fit) and what I see from my fellow runners.  Running truly does provide more than just miles for individuals.  My informal leadership theory focuses on six areas.  Over time I am sure that this list will grow, but in the meantime this is what I noted during the first run…and I have probably 100 more scheduled runs ahead of me until January!

  1. We all can do this
  2. Encouragement always
  3. “Waddle on”
  4.  You are just one of us
  5. Surprise yourself
  6. The community

Short descriptions follow.  I hope you consider these ideas next time you lace up your shoes!


  1. We all can do this –  One of the first things I notice in my running club is that there is not one template on who can run a half-marathon or marathon. You see all ages, you see all body types, you see killer athletes, you see individuals who are improving themselves.  Like running, leadership is right for everyone.  In my previous administrative work in student success, I used to do this short activity with my student advisees.  I would ask one student volunteer if they knew how to run.  I would ask them, “can you run?”  The answer was always yes.  Then I would ask the student to show me how to run.  I would then encourage the student to show everyone by running around the classroom or auditorium.  So, this proved that they knew how to run.  Then I would ask the student, “could you run a marathon?”  For this question, the answer usually was a very quick “No!”  I would challenge the student by saying isn’t doing a marathon just running?  Eventually, I would make the point that doing a marathon isn’t meant to be easy, but with the right mentality and commitment, you could do a marathon.  Leadership is the same way.  We all in a general sense know what it is.  We likely know what it might possibly looks like.  But doing it right?  We likely freeze up.  Leadership isn’t meant to be easy and with the right mentality and commitment to understand what works best for your organization, leadership can be achieved by anyone.  Unlike the “Great Man” idea of leaders of the past (Northouse, 2016), leadership is an opportunity that is everyone can aspire to reach.  Like the members of my run club, there are those who have likely ran a marathon every year and those that are just working to complete their first 5K.  What brings them together is aspiration.  Leadership is aspiration in action.
  2. Encouragement always – In my last few miles of my first run this season, I appreciated the support I received from my fellow runners.  It did not matter is you were in the pace group or the last group crossing the finish line.  What mattered is that you finish.  In order to do this, others would tell me “looking good Ric!”, “Keep it up”, “Nice job!”.  In return, I would pass others and say similar things.  These little words of encouragement are all that runners need to dredge through those hard last miles.  Leadership requires the same thing.  In using a feminist perspective of organizational behavior, interconnections with others and emphasis on collaborations between members provides a communal approach to getting tasks done (Manning, 2013).  In hearing the supportive words from my fellow runners, once the finish line is crossed, the timing and the pace come second to knowing the fact that you accomplished a task from the group: to complete a run.  Leadership is the same way, you have to encourage your strong performers to keep their effort high and your learners aware that their effort is just as important and that improvement is always within reach.
  3. “Waddle on” – John Bingham is a marathoner and author of several motivational books specific to the running community.  The nice thing about Mr. Bingham is that he prides himself to not be an elite runner.  He is just your average Joe who likes to run.  One of his favorite phrases that he shares with his readers is the the message, “Waddle on!”  Mr. Bingham’s nickname is The Penguin, reflecting his running stance and pace.  A penguin does not immediately bring thoughts of speed to mind.  Mr. Bingham is quick to let others know that he is slow and he knows it, so get over it.  Leadership can be viewed in the same mentality.  Some of us are superstar leaders that turn everything we touch to gold.  Most of us are still learning the art of leading others.  While we should emulate the skills of the superstars, we should not feel ashamed that we are still learners.  We will get there, but right at this moment, feel comfortable on where you are at and know that over time, you’ll get to the levels of leadership you aspire to reach.  Much like Mr. Bingham, a sub-3 hour marathon may not be where we are at currently, but we will are capable of running 26.2 miles.  It just might take use just a little bit longer!
  4. You are just one of us – Last year before a race, I had an interesting experience with a member of the running club.  As we were warming up, he noticed the name I had on my running bib.  On it, I had “Dr. Ric”.  My running colleague noticed and asked if I was a medical doctor.  I informed him that I wasn’t that type of doctor but one with a Ph.D.  I then informed him about being an assistant professor in my field.  The exchange was interesting because at that time, we have been running together for over four months.  I began to think it was interesting because for me, I had no idea what he did as a career as well!  Our mutual love of running was all we needed to know about each other.  The other stuff, like what we did for a living, was secondary.  Leadership has to have a similar quality.  In complex organizations working towards a goal, there really should not be emphasis on who is the “star” among the group.  Every member has an equal share in the group’s goals.  One thing that should be known is their level of commitment.  My colleague and I shared the similar commitment to do our best that morning on our 5K.  Leaders need to let their members know that their commitment will get the job done and that is not necessarily the work of just a few.
  5. Surprise yourself – As I type this blog entry, my sides are hurting!  They hurt because I was reminded of something our club loves to let members know about post-run workouts and weekly ab & core workouts – each will include 10 sets of 30 sit-ups.  Yes, that is 300 sit-ups!  Yesterday, the last time I did 300 sit ups was probably the last group workout several months ago.  However, I didn’t complain.  I surprised myself and did my best to complete all the sets.  Leadership can hurt as well with experiences of not everyone appreciating your work or being on the receiving end of political nastiness.  As an effective leader, you have to surprise yourself with your resiliency and willingness to fight for what you feel is best for  your organization.  You may think “I can’t do 300 sit ups!!”, but you push yourself.  In the end, you can.  Leadership is a journey of surprises.
  6. The community – The last characteristic of running that I absolutely love is knowing that I am part of a community of runners.  I can speak the language (have you ever spoke to a runner about their pace?  Try it!), I know where to find the right tools and equipment (ask me the last time I bought running shoes at Macy’s), I even get excited watching marathons on television (well, at least during the Olympics)!  My point is that I am lucky to be part of a very unique community.  Some days, I run at Memorial Park near downtown Houston.  Each time I run there, I see the same individuals who run during my same preferred time at the park.  I do not know their names but I know that we are part of the Memorial Park running community (the ones that meet from 5-6pm).  I feel some degree of belonging because of this.  Leadership is a community.  Leaders learn from each other.  If you study leadership, you also know that there is a unique language spoken by effective leaders in your field.  Leadership, like running shoes, comes in differenty styles and brands.  You have to shop around for the right fit and speak to others to learn from their experiences.  Doing all of these actions makes you part of an exciting community, one that creates change for organizations and individuals.  Running does the same thing.  When you participate in a 5K or half-marathon, you know that while you may not be able to say “good luck” to every participant, you know that you all share similar experiences in learning how to improve your skill and finding out the best strategy to accomplish the task.  In becoming a leader, you have membership in a community that is dynamic and innovative and knows how to move from a “5K” to a “marathon”.  All you have to do is ask your fellow members!

In my twenty years of running, I learned a great deal about how to transform myself to become a better leader and follower.  In my process to be the athlete that I am now, I have allowed myself to be taught, I have allowed myself to fail, I have allowed myself to be humble, and allowed myself to show off just a bit (oh, I guess now is a good time to let you know I won my running club’ color group’s “Runner of the Year” trophy last year!).  My running has provided me good advice and observations that I carried over into my leadership roles in higher education administration.  I am honest when I say that it is not the amount of miles that is important to me.  What matters the most is how I am becoming a different me and how that improves those that work with me and most importantly, the students I teach.




Manning, K. (2012). Organizational theory in higher education. Routledge.
Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage publications.

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