The relay race as a life metaphor arose for me recently as I was discussing on-boarding with my new company. The idea being that there are work and responsibilities that need to be handed off to me, but I must be up to speed before that handoff can occur. Just like in a relay race, we can’t allow momentum to be broken.
I have great memories of running relay races from elementary school through intramurals at college. It is a prime example of teamwork and comradery. A relay race requires full participation from every member. Everyone giving it their all for their assigned section and then passing on the baton. It’s never the fastest runner or the last runner that wins the race. It’s the team that works together and trusts each other. Passing the baton with confidence and care is the most critical element.
The 4×100 relay is my favorite track event. Exciting and fast with three critical handoffs. Over the years, Olympic gold medals have been won or lost due to poor handoffs. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, the USA Men’s 4x100m relay team was the favorite, hands down the fast collection of runners in the race. Their poor execution of a baton handoff cost them a medal. Japan, despite none of their members having a sub-10 time for the 100, took the silver medal. Japan’s precision in the handoffs gave them the advantage over teams with faster athletes, but inferior technique.
A successful baton exchange needs to be intentional and precise. It requires that both runners keep moving forward, stay within their lanes, and time the handoff appropriately. The passing can’t be too early, but also can’t take too long. It is an intricate balance. The expertise in the handoff is developed over hours of practice and thousands of repetitions.
With leadership, if we pass it on too quickly before the new leader is ‘in the zone’ and prepared, a young leader can struggle costing the organization momentum. Also, this emerging talent may lose future opportunities for leadership roles. If we pass it on too late, when the leader has left the ‘passing zone’, we may have missed the opportunity and lose the talent that was present. Preparing emerging leaders with the right mentoring and smaller leadership challenges, builds their competence to accept the baton at the right time.
Dr. Myles Munroe, a Bahamian evangelist, ordained minister, and leadership consultant, had a dream just prior to his unexpected death in which he saw a person lying in their coffin clutching a baton. Munroe said about the dream, “I was thinking, the young person who’s supposed to lead next has to go to the casket, pry the baton out of the dead man’s hand just to take it to the next leg.” The meaning was people die holding a baton instead of passing it on.
The NFL has a similar challenge when teams pass the baton from one quarterback to another. Teams that manage this well can remain at the top of the league. The best example is the San Francisco Forty-niners who continued to win Super Bowls as they passed the position from Joe Montana to Steve Young. The opposite has happened more frequently with the passing of the baton being forced when the next QB wasn’t ready or the old QB stayed too long. Troy Aikman and John Elway are examples where the team did not have someone ready to maintain the momentum. I fear the Steelers will have that issue soon with Big Ben.
If we look up the phrase “passing the baton” it means, “to hand over a particular duty or responsibility.” Society needs the next generation to be up to speed for a successful handoff without losing momentum. Like in a relay race, when the next runner overextends and grabs for the baton, tragedy often results with dropped batons and stumbling transitions which cost precious momentum. “Hurry up and give it to me” is not a smooth transition. The person passing the baton controls the handoff. As a society, the current generation needs to let go of the baton and pass it appropriately. “I will hold onto this a little bit longer” is not a smooth transition. There needs to be trust on both sides of this exchange – a rock solid dependence, existing on evidence, created by experience. We must invest in developing the capabilities in each runner.
Also, the runner receiving the baton must not look back. Eyes forward. The days of the past are not necessarily the better days. The best days are today and what lies ahead, as that is what we have. Today is an opportunity to get up to speed to better take the baton as well as an opportunity to be prepared to hand off the baton – depending on which leg of the race we are running. Although one runner is accelerating and the other soon to decelerate, at the moment the baton is passed, both sides should be at the same speed.
There are many biblical parables for the passing of the baton, beginning in Genesis with the Patriarchs— Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph and the 12 Tribes of Israel. Later in the Old Testament there is the passing of kingly rule—which quite frankly didn’t go all that well—from Saul to David to Solomon. The most notable was from Moses to Joshua. Moses is considered one of the greatest leaders in the Old Testament. God used Moses to free the people of Israel from the chains of Egypt and lead them through the wilderness and toward the promised land of Canaan. However, Moses was not going to be the one to lead the people into the promised land. In Deuteronomy 3:28 God instructs Moses to “Commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for it is he who will cross at the head of this people and he who will give them possession of the land you are to see.”
The disciples had to first get up to speed before they could take the baton. Jesus spent three years preparing them to become apostles. Without His teachings, parables, mentoring and witnessing upon His death, the momentum of Jesus’ ministry would have stumbled. Jesus prepared the disciples (Luke 9:1-6) as well as the foundation of the early church (Luke 10:1-12) by sending them out to represent the Christian mission, prior to them accepting His baton. Every week we are sent out in this same way to pass the baton of our faith. ‘Mass’ receives its name from the Latin phrase Ite missa est meaning “Go you are sent” forth on a mission.
In 1 Corinthians at the start of Chapter 15, Paul is passing on “of first importance” what he received as the fundamental content of all Christian preaching. For fifteen years Timothy had been Paul’s companion and had accompanied him on his second and third missionary journeys (Romans 16:21; 1 Thessalonians 3:2 and Philippians 2:19–20). Paul mentored, trained, and discipled Timothy to pass wisdom on to him. Timothy, as well as others that Paul touched, were able to maintain the momentum of the early church.
Life requires that we pass the baton, over and over. Passing the baton correctly is a critical transition. We must be intentional and focused on moving forward with momentum. There can be no grabbing nor holding onto the baton. It’s never individuals that win the race – it’s the team that works together and trusts each other.