Leadership lessons: How Kathrine Switzer changed history

No comments yet

I love a good story about a trailblazer. A person who did something for the first time and can offer valuable leadership lessons.

Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967. The black and white photos snapped of her during that momentous race give me goosebumps. They show Kathrine, in a tracksuit and ‘261’ race number, running down the street while fending off an angry race official trying to kick her out. That man almost got in the way of history… almost.

A quick note from LH Agenda…
Did you know our award-winning planners and journals are designed in collaboration with industry experts? They feature mindset, productivity and leadership content to inspire and empower you.

LH Agenda LH Planner

This race was the catalyst for major change in the worlds of running and women’s rights. Not only did Kathrine’s efforts get women into the Boston Marathon, but they also got the women’s marathon event into the Olympics in 1984.

It’s hard to imagine a time not so long ago when women weren’t accepted as competitive runners. Nowadays, female athletes are the stars of numerous sports and provide us with many of the world’s greatest sporting moments. And it’s because of trailblazers like Kathrine Switzer.

It was my great honour to correspond with Kathrine for this article, which takes a look at Kathrine’s remarkable story and the valuable leadership lessons it offers.

Kathrine’s leadership journey

Our LH Agenda manifesto includes six qualities we observe in high-performing leaders. The words ‘determined’, ‘innovative’ and ‘confident’ on that list are all apt descriptors of Kathrine’s leadership style, as evidenced by her words below.

“In 1967, at age 20, after I ran the Boston Marathon for the first time, I was expelled from the AAU–the then governing body of the sport of running in the USA. So was my coach and my boyfriend. This meant we could not represent an existing running club in competitions.

So, in a moment of pique, we decided to form our own club and to heck with the AAU. I was the leader, also hoping to get other females to show up at the races I organized. No women showed, but lots of men did, and I found myself as the boss–organizing the whole thing–from physical race management to marketing.

A quick note from LH Agenda…
Are you tired of unproductive meetings? Let our Meeting Notebook help make your meetings work.
LH agenda Meeting Notebooks

The club grew in a year to be the 2nd biggest running club in NY State, after the huge New York Road Runners in NYC. The men completely respected and deferred to me, trusting –in fact, enthusing over and supporting– my work and decisions. That’s when I knew I was a leader.

A whole global career of creating races in 27 countries grew from this and also gave me a big platform as an activist. This led to getting the women’s marathon into the 1984 Olympics as an official event.”

Kathrine is an iconic athlete, author, Emmy-award winning broadcaster and advocate for sports and social causes. You can read more about her story & her foundation empowering women globally through running here.

Kathrine Switzer stands with bloody feet but smiling, holding her '261' race number after completing Boston 67.

Kathrine Switzer after Boston 1967. Credit: Brearley.com

Leadership lessons

Kathrine’s story provides valuable leadership lessons:

1. Resilience and innovation

Kathrine thought outside the box by forming her own running club after being expelled from the AAU. When faced with adversity, leaders take action rather than passively accepting their circumstances. They demonstrate resilience by bouncing back from setbacks, just as Kathrine did.

2. Confidence and courage

Kathrine’s bold decision to run the Boston Marathon in 1967 challenged the existing norms. Leaders need the confidence and courage to challenge traditions that no longer serve a purpose in order to create positive change.

3. Adaptability and determination

Throughout her leadership journey, Kathrine has been determined to help others. She organised and managed the entire club she founded, and her ability to wear multiple hats helped the club grow. Leaders should be tenacious and ready to take on various roles as needed to drive success.

4. Creating a legacy

Kathrine’s story highlights the power of leadership to effect broader societal change. Leaders aim to leave a positive legacy and create a lasting impact, and can do so by using their platforms for causes they are passionate about.

Kathrine Switzer’s journey exemplifies the leadership qualities of resilience, innovation, confidence, courage, adaptability, determination and leaving a meaningful legacy through her actions and advocacy. These lessons can inspire and guide you as a leader, no matter what your field is, so that you can embrace challenges and drive positive change.

A confidence challenge for you

Kathrine could not have achieved all these remarkable things without confidence in herself and her abilities.

Confidence comes with practice. What is one thing that you would like to become more confident in? What small actions can you take now that will take you slightly out of your comfort zone so you can get acquainted with unfamiliar territory? List out all the challenges you can commit to taking on and watch your confidence grow.

This exercise features in our Make Your Mark journal.

“She is determined. She is focused and persistent. She pushes through fears to make her dreams reality. She knows that success develops from failures and with self-discipline and determination anything is possible. Failure is her teacher, not her undertaker. She expects roadblocks but they will not stop her. She accepts failure but she doesn’t accept not trying. Her glory is not in never failing but in rising every time she falls. No matter how she feels, she gets up, shows up and never, never gives up.”
~ LH Agenda

Now it’s over to you!

How can you embrace the teachings of Kathrine’s story and show resilience, innovation, confidence, courage, adaptability and determination in your own leadership? The next time you’re reading the story of a trailblazer, think about how you can leave a meaningful legacy of your own.

This article is inspired by the Make Your Mark journal, a self-coaching tool developed in collaboration with highly-respected leadership experts. If you’re ready to explore ways to break outside your comfort zone, overcome setbacks and begin building the legacy you’d like to leave behind, click here to learn more about Make Your Mark

Photo credits

Main image: Boston Marathon 3-part photo. Credit: Boston Herald

In-article image: Kathrine Switzer after Boston 1967. Credit: Brearley.com





Mikaela Bella has seven years’ media experience covering digital marketing, radio promotions, communications and management. With a Bachelor of Professional Communication (Major in Journalism), she is a published writer who loves sharing stories and encouraging women to embrace their natural role of ‘leader’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *