The Utility Runner

On knowing and embracing your role to create a winning team.

By Dawn Wiese

A “utility runner.” That’s what my high school cross country coach called me.  I didn’t really understand at the time what it meant, but I embraced it.  He explained it to me like this: 

“Your job is to do all you can to place.  Don’t worry about coming in first.  First gets us one point.  We want low numbers.  Try to come in under five.”  

In cross country running, the first-place runner receives one point, the second-place runner two, and so on.  The team receiving the lowest score wins.  I knew my friend Mary would always beat me – she’d been beating me since we were in 6th grade and first started running local 10Ks.  She was simply a better runner. And I was okay with that.  

Many years later, having studied and practiced management, I have a better understanding of what was happening. As I developed self-awareness, I began to understand that I enjoy being on a team, supporting my team, and helping my team to win. I don’t have to be the one who wins on a team. I do, however, want to make sure my team is best positioned to win, and I will fight fiercely for that.  If that means I take a back seat, I am happy to do this.  If I need to take on a larger role, I’m okay with that, too. My overall interest is in protecting and caring for my “team.”  

And then there are those on teams who are focused on the “win.”  When I think about Mary, she would have been furious if I’d beaten her (I never did).  She was a tough competitor and had even been known to resort to under-handed tactics to move ahead of others.  Mary’s need to win benefitted our team. Mary’s need to win also translated to needing team members who were okay with her winning.

Whether in a corporate environment or on an athletic team, understanding one’s role and performing best in that role creates winning teams.  Some are “utility runners” and others are going to be out front—all individuals working together create a winning team.  But, individuals who have greater self-awareness and embrace their roles will produce the greater team. 

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