John Brewer Coaching & Consulting
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Zen and the Art of Triathlon

Why grit and compassion are critical leadership traits

As a husband, father, business leader and amateur triathlete, it can be tough squeezing everything in. In my consulting and coaching work I find this to be common amongst my clients. I strive for Zen - being fully present, and as aware as possible. I also like to race triathlons, and need to train … a lot.

I feel Zen when I am racing, lost in the process and pursuit of the swim, bike and run. It requires perseverance, endurance, a strategy and the ability to adapt. My big inspirational goal is to make the US Team for my age group (you can see from some of my teammates race suits, they have already accomplished this). Last year I missed out on this goal by one second. I cramped on my bike dealing with a race course I was not sufficiently conditioned for.

I’ve moved on from a narrow failure with a new training plan designed with my coach, to improve on my performance. It factors nutrition, recovery, focus, and a lot of“threshold pain workouts”. As my coach says, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”.

More importantly though, I have come to realize through failure, that much of my Zen, is about connection and compassion - sharing the experience with others. Yes, foam rolling can be fun when you are chatting with team mates, and just having a laugh!

The compassion of the triathlon community has touched me. Our team is diverse, in terms of ethnicity, gender, and motivation. Supporting each other, learning together, listening to our coaches attentively, participating and volunteering, is poetry in motion. To say nothing of the social benefits, promoting good health and fundraising for great causes.

Watch Jonny Brownlee, the British Olympic triathlete picked up by his elder brother Alistair for a very inspiring demonstration of compassion and grit.

What is compassion?

The recognition of suffering in others, with the emotional separation to help

What is grit?

The courage to persevere

Why I am connecting triathlon with work? Firstly, it’s my release, secondly, the grit required to persevere, and the compassion of the team, remind me of work today. 

Grit is necessary at work on a daily basis when things don’t go your way. As challenges persist though it becomes more difficult for grit to win through. We become fatigued. However, if you add compassion to the grit, within the people system, we can support each other and prevail.

In fact, research has shown that compassion is key for health care workers, who face suffering every day in their work. They need to be able to open their hearts to a patient’s suffering, at the same time as maintaining emotional self regulation to do their job.

This essay from Robert McClure on sustaining compassion in healthcare explains why compassion is critical in avoiding burn-out.

4 ways to cultivate grit and compassion:

  1. Develop a Growth Mindset: Carol Dweck’s work contrasts fixed and growth mindsets. Avoid the urges to avoid challenges, give up, or feel threatened … instead, embrace setbacks and pursue a pathway to mastery

  2. Practice Positive Psychology: Recognize what is working well. In fact, promote a culture of optimism (versus pessimism to change the way you view setbacks)

  3. Self Regulate: When we are tense, our body takes over, and our mind races ahead. We become emotionally overwhelmed, so it's more difficult conversation to have a conversation with compassion. Recognize the tension in your body, as you feel threatened, vulnerable, or anxious. Isolate what triggers it, and work to notice this and stop it as it happens

  4. Be helpful and constructive: Research at Wharton has shown the value of compassion in the workplace. And as Kristine Neff says, start by being kind to yourself. In giving feedback, adopt a mentality of being constructive in identifying how you can help to find a solution, rather than criticizing without taking ownership. I use a feedback process grounded in positive psychology to do this

Making sure you add compassion to grit goes a long way to building healthier teams, and moves you closer to your Zen.

For coaching on developing compassion and grit in your workplace contact me at