Running Management: Transactional or Transformational?

By referencing the best practices around Transformational Management, you can move towards a sustainable transformational running attitude.


Words David Ng

In the world of executive management education, a perennial debate revolves around management and work styles, and what is best suited to specific situations.  Much the same has been debated around running tracks and on Saturday morning running groups for probably even longer than the corporate suits have been at it.  It’s just that instead of deciding how best to get staff productive and self-motivated, us runners talk about frankly more measureable performance indicators.

The pursuit of a specific target time for your next loop around MacRitchie reservoir or perhaps your next Army Half Marathon is really pretty specific, and perhaps reflecting great project milestone management, the more detailed managers out there break it down to kilometre targets and 100th of a second times.

If you are anything like me, there is of course nothing worse than falling behind that first milestone target by a hurtful few seconds.  What started out as a promising day for a PB, bolstered by the sacrifice of getting to bed early the night before, eating the right breakfast, beating the toilet queues at the race start and even getting a good starting position, can unravel too quickly at that first marker.  It’s quite probable the more seasoned community runners have experienced this early setback in a recent run, and it won’t be the first or last time.

In the professional working world, the spectre of falling behind milestone targets on a key project is also a reality, but my experience is that it is rarely as earth-shattering as when you realise you are 10 seconds down on your targeted 2km time in, say, your half-marathon PB project. The thing with work targets is that often they are team based and on occasion the milestone targets are woolly and difficult to quantify, let alone measure precisely or on a timely basis. For those projects and targets that are singular in ownership and execution by individuals, it’s a bit more difficult to shift responsibility, but not impossible.

A favourite I’ve heard often is that the ground work has been done, and sales will (surely) take off soon – if not this month, then next month.  By ground work, they mean all the preparatory meetings going back 6 months, the dinners and coffee meetings to check on commitment, and that time last month I sacrificed my Friday morning to play golf with the would-be new client. 

The optimism that we find in the working environment never ceases to impress, especially early on in a project’s lifecycle or the first months of a new year.  I guess that’s human nature, where there is always tomorrow to deliver.  It perhaps starts from youth, with the enthusiasm you feel at the start of a new school year, with your brand new uniform, shoes and school bag.  These first days of school or a large team project at work are united in the prospect of pending achievement, better than ever before, and that’s healthy and innate.  It’s what runners understand and search for every time they front up to the starting line, and the “bigger” the target race, the greater the required level of belief, hope and conviction.

A key difference for runners is that performance targets (KPIs) rarely involve qualitative measures, only hard edged quantitative targets.  What’s more, they are simple and few, and so give you no room to hide.  If you are 10 seconds off the target pace 2km into a 21.1km race, then its’ really quite clear you have to run quicker to make up the negative variance.  And if you stay at -10 seconds at the next marker, the pressure only builds as the doubts likely grow.  How are you feeling? Was I kidding myself with the original target? Are these negative thoughts negatively impacting my psyche and running efficiency?

In the corporate world, measurement has been a hot topic for decades. KPI dashboards and ‘Balanced Scorecards” are a common tools for managers to supervise their charges and key projects, but runners have been long dealing with mental dashboard on the run.  The science of running, pioneered by the likes of Franz Stampfl, Percy Cerutty and Arthur Liddiard from the 1950s instinctively knew precise measurement and monitoring over a long build-up period was key to delivering on targets.   Their impact as coaches and managers on the running world is now legendary, still clearly relevant and still being followed in coaching circles.

What can we take from the corporate world of people and project management into our world of running? Surely it can’t be a one way street, and surely the intervening years of corporate history can give us some worthy lessons.  Well one possibility is the rise of ‘Transformational Management’ which is distinct from ‘Transactional Management’.

Transformational Management encompasses a holistic approach to people management (Martin, Liao & Campbell, 2013). It upholds the virtues of constant motivation and stimulation and treats subjects (followers) individually by developing personal plans that consider their capabilities.  It is a much longer-termed view of talent development, and is contrasted with transactional management, which is short-term focused on defined quantitative goals, with task based monitoring and assistance being given.  There is less regard for a longer term strategy of building company talent that can become self-directed in its goal setting, execution and self-alignment with broader goals. 

As such, the KPIs are a combination of precise quantitative targets and measureable qualitative measures. This wider awareness in management circles about the need to be aware of the long term social impact of corporations interacting with wider society is where true societal transformation can occur. 

In a running context we have similar notions of community engagement, but we should look to grow these wider transformational possibilities.  Running to support a worthwhile charity or cause is a common and worthwhile way to balance your running scorecard. What else? How often should we do a charity run?

The logic of moving away from a ‘transactional management’ approach to your running is even more compelling when you realise only a small proportion of readers are in the national or elite level.  It is only the elite runners, with their naturally bestowed gifts along with their nurtured discipline, commitment and hours of training who are in the situation where they can realistically look to run PBs more often.  And even these elite athletes are realistic in not chasing PBs every time they front u at the starting line, but rather they target select events in a year to peak.  So for the rest of us, seeking a transformative approach to running must logically involve an attitudinal change that embraces qualitative measures as well as unforgiving time targets.

So what other measures should be on your KPI dashboard other that pace per kilometre targets and your ultimate target time for that road race? This is ultimately a personal decision as we all have different goals in life and different views on wider issues like community engagement and our willingness for running to be woven into our wider life analogously. However whatever qualitative measures you settle on, ensure you choose measures that resonate with your wider interests, and are contextualised with the aim of transforming your running attitude so that you remain engaged for life with running.

Suggested KPI Dashboard:

Scalable qualitative measures, on a scale from 1 being low/poor to 10, being highest/outstanding.

1. How would you rate your training commitment in the 4 weeks prior to the target running event?
2. How would you rate the realism of your target goal time when you commenced training for this event?
3. How would you rate your reaction to the feedback on time at the first milestone marker in this race?

Qualitative questions, non-scalable answers

1. List 3 things about the run that you enjoyed.
2. List 3 things about the run that you would like to work on over the next year.

Hard-nosed Qualitative measures
1. Target time vs Actual time
2. Target time at first marker vs Actual time
3. Target time at half-way point vs Actual time


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