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3 Inspiring Lessons On Leadership From The Olympics

With the Olympic Games now under way in London, many of us are eagerly following the efforts of our nation’s athletes, cheering them on as they compete to win on the global stage. As much as the Olympics represent the pinnacle of the sporting world, they are also the source of a number of inspiring stories that showcase both the human spirit and what we can accomplish when we strive to be our best.

To that end, I’d like to share three stories from previous Olympic Games that provide important lessons for leaders on how to guide their organization to succeed and thrive, regardless of the challenges that stand before them.

Lesson 1 – Encourage collaboration between different teams and departments
At the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, Canadian skier Sara Renner encountered a situation I’m sure she never imagined would happen. In the middle of the cross-country team sprint race, one of her ski poles was accidentally broken by another skier, leaving her with only one pole to continue the race with. That is, until one of the ski coaches rushed out onto the track to give her his ski pole so she could keep going without any difficulty. Thanks to the quick response of this coach, Renner and her teammate Beckie Scott went on to win the silver medal in this event.

While it was a proud moment for Canadians, what really made it incredible was that this coach, Bjornar Hakensmoen, was not Canadian. On the contrary, he was one of the coaches for the Norwegian team. Despite the fact that Renner was competing against his team in this event, Hakensmoen didn’t hesitate to help Renner when it looked like she wouldn’t be able to finish the race.

In that moment, it was no longer about the borders that define Canada and Norway. Instead, it was about people coming to the aid of others to ensure that everyone would have a fair chance to complete the race.

Similarly, in terms of your organization, it’s vital that leaders encourage their employees to look beyond the internal borders which define their team, department, or even their individual responsibilities. We need to be mindful of our tendency to narrow our focus to only those issues or measures which have a direct impact on us and expand our perception to consider the larger picture within which our efforts reside.

By encouraging such a viewpoint, leaders can tap into their employees’ motivational drive to contribute meaningfully to their organization’s goals by framing their efforts in terms of how others will benefit from their efforts to help their team succeed.

As the example of Renner and Hakensmoen shows, the ability of us to collaborate and come to the help of others should not be restricted to whatever boundaries we create around us. Instead, it should be defined by what we’re able to contribute to assist in the pursuit of reaching that shared goal.

Lesson 2 – Acknowledge your competition’s part behind your success
At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir made Olympic history by being the first North American team to ever win the gold medal in ice dancing. And yet, what made their win truly exceptional was the relationship they built with US silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

While they were competing for different countries, they both trained at the same skating club, which gave them insights into the strengths and abilities of their competitors. This gave each team a clearer understanding of what they’d need to do in order to outperform the other. It also allowed them to build a friendship based on a sense of mutual respect for the talents and abilities of one another.

Upon winning the gold medal, Virtue and Moir were interviewed by reporters around the world who were interested in learning what the young gold-medal winners felt was responsible for their meteoric rise to success on the global stage. In almost every interview, Virtue and Moir credited their American competitors as being one of the reasons why they had to push themselves to be better and stronger in their performance.

Unlike so many others who use their wins to trash their competition, these young athletes showed a sense of respect and empathy for their competition, recognizing how much it helped to shape their training and performance.

Certainly, in the business world, competition is par for the course. And yet, unlike what we see from many of these Olympic athletes, few leaders are willing to recognize how our competitors fuel our drive to improve our products/services, treating such improvements as if they were inspired from within a vacuum than in a complex and evolving marketplace.

And yet, recognizing how our competition helps us to become better is critical to remaining humble about our abilities and achievements. It reminds us that without this external push, we might never have realized what our real potential is and the ways in which we can truly make a difference in this world.

Lesson 3 – Helping your employees to find the courage to press on
Like most athletes, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette arrived at the 2010 Vancouver Games with aspirations of winning an Olympic medal. Unfortunately, mere hours before her first practice session, Rochette found out that her mother had died of a heart attack.

The news of Rochette’s tragedy quickly spread both in national and international news outlets as people wondered how this devastating loss would impact her performance. As she skated out onto the center ice, all eyes were on her, eager and hopeful that she might be able to fulfill her dream of winning at the Olympics.

During her performance, there was an unmistakable look of concentration and focus on her face, of understanding what she was capable of delivering. It was only after her skate was over that she allowed herself a moment to let out some of the turbulent emotions she must have felt, knowing that she had accomplished what she had set out to do.

In the end, Rochette went on to win the bronze medal, along with the admiration and respect of her nation thanks to her courageous performance and grace. While Rochette never imagined skating at the Olympics without her mother cheering her from the stands, her sense of purpose and conviction fuelled the courage she needed to complete the journey she had started years ago.

Although leaders can’t provide any certainty over outcomes in today’s rapidly-evolving world, they can at least provide their employees with a sense of purpose about what it is they’re trying to collectively achieve. Providing that sense of purpose will allow your employees to summon the courage required for them to press ahead despite whatever adversities or challenges stand before them.

Despite the controversies and missteps which are currently dogging the London Games, the Olympics remain an important global showcase of the human spirit and our shared drive to excel and succeed in the face of challenges and the unexpected.

And as these stories above show, they can also provide us with some valuable lessons and inspiration for how we should approach our leadership and guiding the people we lead towards achieving our shared goals.

Some other posts you may enjoy:

  1. An Inspiring Example Of The Power Of Our Words
  2. 3 Leadership Lessons To Keep Your Organization From Running Aground
  3. Do You Lead Your Organization To Meet Or Exceed Expectations?
  4. The Role Leaders Play In Developing Great Teams
  5. Are Summer Vacations Becoming A Thing Of The Past?
  6. Empathy in Leadership – 10 Reasons Why It Matters


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