For Sunil Lulla, the outgoing chairman and managing director of Grey Group, India, it was the Sunday runs on Mumbai’s Juhu beach with his father when he was 5 that sparked his interest in running. Once he began focusing on his career, the activity took a back seat. But when work travel began taking a toll on his health—and his girth—he decided to go back to running, starting with solo runs around Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Park and joining coach Savio D’Souza’s running group in 2012.
Since then, Lulla has completed 10 half marathons (best time, 1 hour, 54 minutes) as well as a marathon (January 2017) with a time of 4 hours, 35 minutes. “I have often picked up new sports, such as squash and sailing, and new interests such as drawing. Their progress has meandered or not got the focus I should have given. Running, regardless of a tiresome travel schedule, has not stopped. I hope it doesn’t," Lulla says.
In an email interview, he explains how running has taught him patience, hope and determination, and given him the ability to accept both success and failure in life and work. Edited excerpts:
What is your fondest running memory?
The most satisfying has been running with my older running colleague, Ewart Lazarus, who unfortunately has a visual impairment. “Lazi", as he is called, had never done a sub-2 run (21.1km in less than 2 hours). I was determined to change that at the 2015 Mumbai half marathon, so I led the run for the first 10km, in under 52 minutes, to build the lead we needed. He was screaming at the back, saying slow down. At 15km, when we reached Pedder Road, I handed the lead to our friend Krishna. Lazi finished in 1 hour, 58 minutes. He abused me with joyous love when he crossed the line, for being part of the crew that got a man for whom seeing is really hard, run across 21km.
Have you ever “hit the wall"?
Last year, at the 32km mark at Worli, the heat and fatigue got to me. I just blanked out. I told my friend: “I am fading. I am running with my eyes closed. Tell me when we come close to the main Worli road." I ran with my eyes shut – with the faith that he wouldn’t let me trip. It got my energy back. After crossing Worli Sea Face, the zing came back, we picked up speed and knew we were on the way to complete 42.2km.
When you plan, train and discipline yourself for it, the probability of achieving it increases. Faith and trust are the lessons. Regardless of practice and running together, you learn to trust and believe somebody will navigate through. However strong you may think you are, nature may play havoc with you. You always have to be ready.
What impact does leading by example as a fit leader have?
I have always believed in leading by example. Fitness is a way of life. I cannot say I am so 365 days a year, but, largely, I stay fit. It is part of who I am. I don’t know any other way. So, whatever is the impact I may have created on the businesses and the people I have worked with, it has been by leading from the front and demonstrating it personally.
How does running influence your performance at work?
It gives me more energy, introduces me to new learnings, stories and people whom I meet during my runs. It clears my mind of stress, if any. Most importantly, it charges me up for the day.
How do you balance your training and work?
Now that’s the hard part. It is a regime and a lifestyle decision. Be it sun or rain—I am up at 5am, on the road by 6, three-four days a week, depending on the season. On other days, I have an early morning yoga class or a gym session. So, fitness is a part of life. When I travel, which is often, I carry my running gear to catch a few minutes on the treadmill. Work comes first and does not get compromised. 2017 was particularly hard, when I spent more time on a plane than on a road. It messed with my training. The same year, I also got hit by dengue, followed by an injury. So, I had to pull out of the 2018 Mumbai Marathon in January. But I shall soon be back on the road. Sometimes one can’t run and you live with it.
Discipline in a runner’s life is paramount. Do you think this discipline also reflects your leadership style?
My belief has always been: “Life is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration." I have tried to bring that attitude to my running. I am not running-obsessed. I run because I enjoy it. It drives me and I drive it. Very much like life. My leadership style is passionate. Aim high. Execute well. But be realistic in what you can do. I don’t worry about timing but about having fun. It makes the rest happen.
Running With The Boss is a series in which CEOs, MDs and senior executives talk about the importance of a fit team and striking a work-life balance through running.