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  • Tamar Balkin

Will Watching The Olympics Improve My Leadership Capability?

“Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way.

And where does the power come from,

to see the race to its end?

From within.”

Ian Charleson - Eric Liddell form the Movie Chariots Of Fire (click here for the music)

Click here for the Chariots of Fire Trailer

So the Olympics are on, and I think many readers are finding that keeping up to date with the medal tally, or the number or world records broken, is more uplifting than listening to the latest Covid figures.

Beyond the diversion what can the Olympians teach us about leadership?

“I can’t believe it,” her father said. “I’ve lost my voice. I cannot believe it. Wow. Unbelievable. Just quite extraordinary. She’s done it. She’s actually done it. Wow. My God. Can’t believe it. Last hundred was just, she’s just focused. Determined. Gritty. Gutsy. Race, unbelievable.”

Mr Titmus on Ariarne Titmus Winning her gold medal

Focus on Personal best: During the training the athlete is encouraged each time they train or compete to perform better than they had in the past, to focus on improving their "personal best".

Perseverance: The 400m individual swimming medley is a challenging event, yet for bronze medallist Brendon Smith, training for this event was complex. Due to the Melbourne lockdowns he was unable to travel to Queensland to train. To keep to his schedule he either swam in the freezing ocean or “tied a rubber rope to the cubby house and.. just jumped in the pool.” “We tried to make it a little bit warmer … filling it up with hot water basically from the kitchen ,which didn’t really make much difference but it was better than nothing!” (Brendon's dad)

“It did feel like the Olympics was never going to come. There was a long time there where I didn’t really know what I was aiming for. To get up in the final and do the swim I did, I’m really happy with it. I’ve gone through hell to get here, having to swim in the ocean for two months in Melbourne when it was getting to 12 degrees. I’m really happy with how I built that final hundred and got to the wall.”

Brendon Smith

Self-reliance: The Austrian female cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer, rode a solo race, something uncommon in road cycling, where team tactics and pelotons usually influence the outcome. Time will tell and people will speculate whether her race was strategic, opportunistic, or circumstantial. Interestingly, she has not been part of a cycling team since she left Lotto Soudal in 2017, and nor did she rely much on her national federation in the lead up to the Olympic Games. "I manage everything on my own,". Anna Kiesenhofer. Whilst I do not advocate that leader should eschew help or support, there are always times when the buck stops with the leader to make independent strategic decisions and take action.

Avoid complacency:

“Annemiek van Vleuten celebrates road race win at Tokyo Olympics, but Anna Kiesenhofer actually won”

ABC news headlines.

What was most interesting about the end of the women’s cycling road race was that that no one in the Dutch team could fathom that they hadn’t won gold. Whilst disruptors are common in business, it is incumbent on every leader to keep a close eye on the competition to ensure that they are really in the lead. The financial and reputational consequences of coming second in business may be more far reaching than the difference between an Olympic gold or silver medal

Dependence on technology: Our over reliance on technology especially radios, may have been one of the issues that impacted the tactics of the Netherlands cycling team. Whilst advances in technology benefit organisations on a daily basis, there are many aspects of effective leadership that require ‘old fashioned’ techniques and reliance on our own human abilities.

“Good old Amateur racing, count them out - count them in AND if you can’t see the comm’s car there’s someone still out there! #justsayin

Nick Esser

Success makes the news: There is a tendency to evaluate leaders and athletes on the basis of their behaviour at one moment in time. Yet in business and politics leaders are often judged by their failures not their successes. Whilst the celebrations that marked Ariarne Titmus’s win in the women’s 400m freestyle, were perhaps more exuberant than what would befit a corporate environment, regular readers would know the benefits of savouring and creating positive moments at work. (click here for my blog on savouring moments, and here for my blog on elevating moments).

What about The Dark Side of the Olympics?

“Imagine dedicating 5 years of your life and striving for another start at the most important sporting event … giving up your private life and work, sacrificing your family etc. All that dedication resulted in a “total flop,” because of the incompetence of third parties.”

Alicja Tchorz Polish Swimmer

In my opinion the dark clouds that hover around the Olympics serve to remind leaders of what not to do:

Core values should always define behaviour: There is always a level of controversy surrounding an Olympic games and this year is no different. Perhaps the Olympics can serve as a prompt to all leaders of the temptation to stray away from core values when blinded lure of fame and promise of financial success. (click here for my blog on Values and wellbeing and here for my blog on values clashing at work)

Prevalence of legal and illegal drug use: Jamie Kermond’s infamous departure from the Olympics before the opening ceremony, is a reminder that high functioning individuals may be abusing legal and illicit drugs. Unfortunately, the pressures associated with Covid and lockdowns have led to an increase in alcohol usage. A survey of over 4000 Australians last year found that factors like drinking pre‐pandemic, middle age, and average or higher income, and proximal factors, including job loss, eating more, changes to sleep as well as stress and depression, were all associated with increased drinking in the COVID‐19 pandemic environment.

Harassment still exists: Sadly, some sports have a history of serious allegations of inappropriate behaviour and harassment that warrant further investigation and action. One needs to look no further than the news headlines ot see that unfortunately harassment still exists in the workplace.

Seek expert advice: The misunderstanding of FINA qualifying standards on the part of the Polish Swimming Federation, is a salient reminder of the large negative impact of human errors.

Perhaps one of the most important leadership lessons from the Olympics is that good leadership requires vigilance not complacency.

Click here to watch Dean Boxall celebrating Ariarne Titmus' Women's 400m Freestyle win

Final Thoughts:

Remote work should not preclude light-hearted workplace Olympic activities, remember good leaders make time for joy and frivolity.

On many levels the Olympics are an excellent leisure activity, however watching sport isn’t actually exercise. (click here for my blog on exercise)

For those who like a good movie and aren't all that excited by the Olympics, Chariots of Fire is inspirational.

Finally, thank you to my husband for his infectious enthusiasm for sport that inspired this blog.

References : more available on request


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