November 21, 2018

Lessons In Leadership: The 100th Bay to Breakers

Bay to Breakers is a San Francisco Institution. Actually, scratch that. Bay to Breakers is the most iconic event in San Francisco. Yeah, much better.

Bay to Breakers is a 12k (7.2 mile) “foot” race that starts at the Bay Bridge and ends at Ocean Beach. It’s been going on for over 100 years.

People either love Bay to Breakers or hate it. This sediment has created one of the most complex events the City of San Francisco puts on.

The 100th running of Bay to Breakers nearly didn’t happen because of the craziness that the 99th Bay to Breakers wreaked on neighborhoods. Oh. I forgot to mention. Bay to Breakers is not just a road race — its also an alcohol fueled, naked Mardi Gras that wreaks havoc on the neighborhoods it rolls through. Taming this madness took a special group of people. These people turned out to be the very neighbors that were the most impacted. I know this because I was one of them.

Angry Phone Calls

As a community leader, you sometimes get the brunt of peoples outrage. It might not even be your fault but because you are a community leader, your neighbors will naturally reach out. That’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of the 99th Bay to Breakers — my phone never stopped ringing.

The stories of disrespect and destruction were just plain bad. Participates jumping fences to pee in back yards. People banging on neighbors doors demanding to be let in. Broken bottles, destroyed trash cans, torn up plants and even lewd sex acts — it felt like an invasion.

Calming the Masses by Organizing the Stakeholders

People were downright mad at how the event not only destroyed the neighborhoods but how helpless they felt. Helpless people are anxious people. Anxious people make irrational decisions that lead to all sort of conflicts.

Calming the masses was an integral part of taking control of the situation so that rational decisions can be made. Achieving this requires the leader to bring all stakeholders together in a way that shows the situation will be dealt with. In order for the leader to achieve this, they need to do the following:


  • Find out who is responsible: This might be harder than you think given the situation. The best way to achieve this is to figure out who benefits or makes money on the event or situation.

  • Form a committee or task force: Solitary is vital to achieving a solution to a complex problem. Organize the stakeholders together and formalize the group via a committee or task force.

  • Include everyone: Even people that may been seen as the problem. Without inclusion, you will never fully understand the complexities of the situation. This will be hard but will be vital to reach consensus.

  • Ask for feedback: Angry people want to be heard. Asking for feedback gives them a voice. It’s also a great way to understand the nature of the problem.

  • Gather facts and data: Data is an important part of problem solving. The more facts and data you gather, the better. It’s also a great way to vet reports to get to the truth.


It may be tough to achieve all of these actions right away but it’s important that they get done. What is the most important aspect of organizing a group around a common vision is to make progress everyday. Any amount of progress is good and will build on itself.

Applied to the 100th Bay to Breakers

We quickly contacted the race owners, AEG, our district supervisor, the mayor, other neighborhood groups and even a participate group. We invited all of these stakeholders to hear first hand what it was like to live through the race and the hardships it created. We collected stories and pictures of the damage and circulated a survey. Everyone soon realized the magnitude of the problem and why neighbors were so mad. This helped solidify our position because we had proof and a lot of it.

Common Vision

Any issue or problem that has multiple stakeholders will have multiple agendas. These agendas may not become clear at a first meeting but the more you meet, the more clear each stakeholders position becomes.

Sorting through all of these agendas takes a leader who can understand why each agenda was formulated, what each stakeholder wants and where the conflicts will naturally arise.

Approaching this takes a broader attitude than just your personal agenda or the group your represent.

Applied to the 100th Bay to Breakers

The race organizers want to run a race. Other participates wanted a party. The city wants to keep the race going because it generates revenue. Neighbors don’t want their property damaged. All of these wants are vastly different but one common theme started to emerge — everyone wanted it to be Fun like it used to be.

This theme of fun quickly brought about the mantra “Fun for Everyone.” This single statement everyone could agree to and would form the basis of the work to come.

Formulating A Plan

Once you have some sort of structure, committee or group of stakeholders together, it’s now time to formulate a plan. The degree of difficultly in forming a plan will directly relate to the diversity of the group and their attitudes towards the situation. The more diverse in attitude and direction, the harder making a plan will be.

Plan building starts with acknowledging the common vision and setting the ground rules. These ground rules are the framework in which, hopefully, everyone will get what they want. Some of the more important ground rules include:


  • Roles and responsibilities: With big events or situations, it can sometimes be hard to know who does what. Establishing that early makes it much easier to gain consensus.

  • Establishing the creditability of stakeholders: Not all stakeholders are equally creditable nor can they affect outcomes. Knowing this sooner rather than later will allow the plan to leverage or work around creditability or lack of it.

  • Alignment with the common vision: A common vision is vital to a successful endeavor. Even if it’s not what everyone wants, a common vision will focus the effort and make it much easier to get things done.

  • Rules for dispute resolution: There will always be disputes and these disputes need to get resolved. Establish a process early for dealing with disputes and it will make negotiations go much smoother.

  • Critical timelines: Always establish critical dates and meetings well in advance. These are the milestones that need to be managed to or hasty decisions will be made.

  • Write it down: Always take notes and email or send them to all stakeholders. This is probably the most important single thing the leader can do to ensure accountability and build agreement towards goals.


Applied to the 100th Bay to Breakers

We soon realized that all stakeholders had one thing in common — they all wanted the race to continue on. An even stronger statement was that everyone agreed that the behaviors reported were unacceptable and could not be tolerated. In order to achieve a safe race, all stakeholders identified three major points of focus: resources, coordination (via a central command) and outreach. Once these details were agreed to, it was just a question of what and how much.

All of these decisions and discussions were captured and sent around via email. Once a critical decision was made or a position agree upon, a position paper was released. All of this communication made it hard to “not remember” what decisions were made.

Unity in Message and Action

Once the plan is formed, a clear message and action plan needs to be communicated. Nothing will muddle your efforts like mixed messages.

Doing this requires a constant reinforcement of the goals and the realization that those goals may not be shared among all stakeholders. A couple of things to do to obtain unity in message and action include:


  • Select a spokesperson: A single public focal point is your best bet for unity of message. Pick someone who can articulate the groups message while also keeping their cool under pressure.

  • Publish position papers or press releases: Once major decisions are made, publish them. All stakeholders want to know that progress is being made and that the process is open.

  • Ask others for feedback: If your situation effects a wider set of people, ask for their feedback. This engages them in the discussion and can reveal insights into how your effort is perceived.

  • Get the word out: You can never do too much outreach. As soon as the message is clear, do it early and often. You would be amazed at how hard it is to educate a wide group of people.

  • Ask for status updates frequently: In-between formal meetings, ask for status updates. This keeps the momentum going and shows that you are actively engaged and holding people accountable.


Applied to the 100th Bay to Breakers

The eight or so neighborhood groups involved in the 100th Bay to Breakers quickly realized that they wanted to make the event “Fun for Everyone.” This message resonated with every stakeholder and soon became the guiding principal behind all our activities.

The group selected a spokesman, which happened to be yours truly. This allowed the neighborhood group to not mix the message and have someone who was responsible for making sure things got done. This common message was also important for impromptu meetings where other committee members were asked about the effort.

Holding Others and Yourself Accountable

Accountability is a power tool to drive home a common vision and mission. By being accountable, you demonstrate that you can follow through on your actions.

It’s vital that you figure out who can make decisions. Everyone wants to be seen as the decision maker because that gives them power. Make sure to sort through all the posturing and narrow in on the key decision makers in each group. Those are the individuals you want to hold accountable.

Applied to the 100th Bay to Breakers

It became clear only after a couple of meetings that the key decision makers were AEG (who puts on the race), the Mayor’s office of Special Events and the Neighborhoods themselves. All three of these stakeholders had key individuals that had the authority to make decisions and get things done. Once the key decision makers were aligned, progress became more rapid and collaborative.

Enduring The Debate

Leading any high visibility effort will open a leader to criticism. Most of this criticism will be reactions to incomplete information, negative spin from opposing forces and the natural political posturing. Even the praise is a double edge sword since there is always someone who will think you don’t deserve it or are getting too “full of yourself.”

To help you endure the debate and thrive, try applying some of the techniques below:


  • Take the heat graciously: Always keep in mind that criticism is part of leadership. Admit when you are wrong and defend yourself when the facts are twisted.

  • Accept the praise humbly: It’s never about the leader — it’s about the cause. Accept the praise but don’t make it about you.

  • Stay on message: Always focus on the message. Many a leader gets caught up in the moment and says something foolish. The message always needs to be clear and the focal point.

  • Be respectful: If you give respect, you get respect. Even the worst foe deserves your respect.

  • Never take it personal: You’re the face of the cause and that makes you a target. Even if the attacks get personal, don’t take it that way. Most of the time, people can’t properly verbalize their rage, so they attack the person in front of them.

  • Keep in personal contact: Have personal relationships with all the stakeholders. You don’t have to be friends but you do need to get to know them and meet with them outside a group setting.


Applied to the 100th Bay to Breakers

If you can believe it, there was actually a group of people who wanted less control and more freedom to do what they wanted. This group was vocal but clearly in the minority.

They would turn up at community meetings and reiterate that we did not represent them and would constantly say “it’s only one day” or “you’re just a bunch of NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard).” Thankfully, other neighbors would take them on directly and recount story after story of how bad things were — sometimes with pictures.

All in all, the debate was remarkably civil and survey’s after the 100th confirmed that almost 80% of neighbors thought the race went better — a tremendous achievement.

Continuing the Momentum

Success should be capitalized upon to strengthen a group or movement. Success makes everyone feel good and yearning for more. Even mild success can spark the group to want to achieve more.

Groups tend to loose their momentum if they don’t continue operating together or have a formal agreement or structure. To continue the momentum, try a few of these simple techniques:


  • Formalize the group: Giving an effort a formal title makes it real. It also allows participates the ability to sign up for something.

  • Create a mailing list: Always gather emails and phone numbers so that you can keep in touch and rally supporters.

  • Collaborate on an event: Follow on events are great ways to solidify a groups effort. It also demonstrates commitment to broader objectives.

  • Recognize the achievement: Simple recognition shows that the group and it’s leadership values the contributions and achievements of the group. Something as simple as a plaque or commemorative pen can really make a difference.


Applied to After the 100th Bay to Breakers

The 100th Bay to Breakers was a turning point for the race. All groups involved felt that the mood of the race had shifted to being what it should be — a Celebration of San Francisco that’s Fun for everyone. Building on this success, the groups involved formed the District 5 Neighborhood Action Committee (D5NAC).

The D5NAC quickly put on a mayoral forum and will be involved in the 101st Bay to Breakers. Moving forward, the mantra has changed. It’s now “Fun for Everyone with Positive Neighborhood Impact.”