Five Leadership Lessons from the Summer Olympics

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16.08.16 Olympic Photo 2Confession: I have always loved watching the Olympic Games. This week I gave some serious thought to why these events have always inspired me. What I have discovered in thinking about the Olympics and Olympians is they present five challenges to each of us who wish to best lead ourselves and impact others:

Focus. American gold metal Olympian, Simone Biles, has been called the greatest female gymnast of all time. Certainly, her power and execution is extraordinary but what also sets her apart is her ability to tune out everything around her and deliver a consist performance every time. In contrast, a number of her competitors, who were the reigning champions going into the 2016 Olympics, have been less consist in Rio.

Robin Sharma, noted leadership coach and author, recently said: “Today, focus is more important than intelligence.” A keen ability to focus, to tune out the crowd around you, to stay on task in a world of distractions, will set you apart even from those smarter and more naturally gifted than you. Developing the ability to focus emotionally is a skill all champions possess. And, it is a skill that you can develop over time.

Excellence. Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, Outliers, popularized the “10,000-Hour Rule,” based on a study by Swedish psychologist, Anders Ericsson. Greatness, he explained, requires an enormous amount of practice, namely, pursuing a specific task 20 hours a week for 10 years-10,000 hours. Gladwell even argues that the early works of Mozart were not extraordinary but after years of practice they became so. This is encouraging!

Have you ever pursued anything for 10,000 hours? As you consider your next ten years, is there any skill you would find worthy of such prolonged effort? Do you feel it is too late? What if you spent even half of that time, 10 hours a week, over the next decade becoming excellent in your work or avocation? Our window may have passed to become an Olympian, but we might become an extraordinary parent, business leader, or photographer.

Risk. Carol Dweck in her masterful book, Mindset, posits that those with a “fixed mindset” do not attempt goals that might reveal them to be less than perfect whereas those with a “growth mindset” do not mind failing if they are learning new things. The Olympics provide numerous examples of the growth mindset at play. Consider the men’s and woman’s bicycle races where athletes had to choose to either play it safe or risk crashing in the rain and gymnasts who had to perform routines of the highest difficulty if they wished to have any chance of a metal.

When was the last time you “put it all on the line” knowing you would either win or fail spectacularly? Olympians do it all the time and we laud their success and admire their courage. We could do well to follow their example.

Grace. True Olympians are a study in sportsmanship. They are humble when winning gold and gracious when their metal dreams are dashed. Those who are overly boastful or poor losers are the rare exceptions.

A number of years ago a friend of mine hosted a dinner party where no one was allowed to talk about work or what he or she did for a living. It was a refreshing and amazing party. Everyone got to know each other apart from titles and accomplishments. Here’s a test: The next time you are on a plane or at a social gathering, see how long you can keep the conversation going without telling revealing what you do for work, where you have been, or what you have accomplished or own.

When you are praised in a work meeting, respond like an Olympian by telling others how indebted you are to your team for your big win, naming each one specifically. And, when you don’t get that promotion, be the first to publicly shake the hand of the person who “won the gold,” even if you feel the judges could have been more fair. This is grace and humility in action.

Inclusiveness. We are a species who naturally form tribes. If you are tribal member of the Red Sox Nation, you may tend to have some feelings about Yankee fans. If you live in Los Angeles, you wonder about those who live in adjacent Orange County. But, if you are from Iowa traveling in China and meet a fellow tourist from Florida, you might feel like you have been reunited with a long-lost friend. We are odd that way. Tribal membership can mean getting a job from a complete stranger who just happened to attend your alma mater 20 years before you did. Sadly, It can also mean ignoring your neighbors who live just steps away.

The Olympics, however imperfectly, more broadly define our sense of tribe. Gone, for a brief few days, are the ugly, time-worn, tribal distinctions that separate us. Watching the Olympics, we are all Americans- every U.S. athlete part of our tribe, and all athletes from every nation worthy competitors. For a moment, every two years, we are invited to cheer as one. And, we also get to glimpse what a world at peace could truly be when North and South Korea gymnasts embrace for a selfie and athletes from strained nations congratulate each other’s victories and efforts.

The Olympics invite us to pursue our own paths of focus, excellence, risk, grace, and inclusiveness. They invite us to draw a bigger circle around what we consider to be “our tribe” and, in these five challenges, represent humanity’s highest ideals. How will you embody the Olympic spirit?


Dr. Bill Dyment is a Corporate Consultant, Speaker and Career Coach. Over the past 20 years, he has spoken to 2500 audiences and 500 organizations. He is the co-author of Fire Your Excuses.

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