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4 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From The Olympics

4 valuable lessons we can take from the Olympics for how we can inspire our employees to bring their best efforts to the work they do.

With the latest edition of the Summer Olympic Games now well under way in Rio, there is naturally much interest in the outcomes of various sporting events. Within the leadership and management field, there is also much interest in discovering insights that can help us to better understand how to inspire the best in our employees.

Of course, the typical focus on lessons we can learn from the Olympics tend to be on teamwork, communication, building confidence and the like.

But for this piece, I’d like to take a more broader view, using the microcosm the Olympic Games provide to examine what drives or motivates us to push ourselves to succeed. To that end, here are 4 key lessons leaders can learn from the Olympics on how to ignite their employees’ drive to bring their best selves to the work they do.

1. Success is important, but so is creating meaning and a sense of belonging
I have to admit that what sparked my interest in writing this piece was the story of the Canadian women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team and in particular, the events that transpired after their qualifying heat on Saturday morning.

Hours before the final swim, the decision was made that Michelle Williams, who had swam in the morning relay team heat, would be replaced by her team mate Penny Oleksiak to swim in the final that night.

Reports then came out about how the news had not only hit Michelle hard, but that her entire team was deeply upset by the change in the lineup. Although this is a commonly used tactic in this sport to maximize a team’s chances of winning a medal, for this group of first-time Olympians, it still felt like a betrayal for the hard word Michelle had given to get the team to the final.

Seeing how hard they were taking the news, the coach got his team together and told them that it didn’t matter who was swimming in the final that night because this was a team effort.

He reminded his team members that each of them played a key role in getting them to the Olympics and to now potentially winning a medal for their country. The coach then told them that what matters here is not who crosses the finish line, but how we work together to make that happen.

When the swimming finals came up that evening, the negative emotions these athletes had been feeling hours earlier were clearly replaced with a steely determination to deliver their best.

And deliver their best they did as this swimming team went on to win the Bronze medal, the first medal for Canada at the Rio Olympic Games and the first medal Canada has won in this particular swimming event since 1976.

Now while this story has that Hollywood-style ending that makes the Olympic Games so much fun to watch, the real message here is how this coach managed to get this team’s focus back on track so they could deliver a medal-wining performance.

Indeed, this story is a wonderful reminder of how little it matters whether you have the best people working in your organization if they’re not inspired or motivated to deliver their best.

And therein lies the critical message that every leader needs to take hold of to ensure they are bringing out the best in those they lead: being successful is important, but so is finding a sense of purpose and belonging in what we do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

In what is perhaps the most fitting end to this story came moments after the awards ceremony when during a post-game interview with the swimming team, Penny spontaneously took off her Bronze medal and put it around Michelle’s neck. It’s that kind of team spirit leaders can foster in those they lead when everyone feels that they belong and can make a difference in your organization.

2. Always keep learning on the forefront of everything you do
While there’s quite a wide variety of sporting events that are now played under the Summer Olympics banner, one thing that they share in common is the reality that only a select few will land on the podium.

In many ways, that has to be the hardest part about being an Olympian – each of them puts in the time and effort to train. They make personal sacrifices with many of them living apart from their families so they can be coached or be a part of the best team their country has to offer.

And yet, for many of them, the difference between winning a medal and just ending up on a leader-board comes down to how many hundreds of a second you were faster than your competitors.

So how do these athletes continue to fuel their drive to keeping pushing ahead; to finish the race even after their chance to win a medal is long gone?

Obviously, what most people focus on is the mental toughness of the athletes, which undoubtedly plays a critical role in their ability to bounce back from a disappointing performance.

But what’s more critical to their ability to keep pressing ahead is how their focus is on looking for what they can learn from that experience – of what that competition helped them to learn about what they need to work on going forward, and what their competitors did to move past them.

As spectators, when the competition is over and the medals are handed out, the event is for all intents and purposes done and we move on to the next competition. But for these athletes, this is merely the start of the next leg in their process of discovering how they can become a better competitor and hopefully win the next competition.

Though there’s a common tendency to wrap this around the notions of good sportsmanship, the truth is that there is also an important lesson here for leaders in terms of how to encourage growth and innovation in their organization: whether we win or lose, there is always an opportunity to learn how we can be better going forward [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

3. Be adaptable, but never lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve
Of the numerous and diverse Summer Olympic events, the one I make the most effort to watch are the rowing events. One of the reasons for this is because unlike most other Olympic events, the athletes for this sport have to contend with the uncertainty of both water and wind conditions.

Naturally, these athletes have to adapt how fast or how much force they put into their strokes to compensate for these changing weather conditions, which can vary greatly over the length of the course.

However, they never allow these changes to alter or drastically impact their overall plan of how to win the race. Of whether they prefer to push out fast from the start, or coast and follow the leader, saving their energy to push ahead when their competitors start to lose their momentum.

That ability to change your approach while still being able to stick to what you’ve trained or planned for as the best approach to achieving your goals serves as an important lesson for leaders everywhere.

Indeed, when we consider the faster-paced, ever-changing global environment in which we have to operate, there is a very salient lesson for leaders to take note of if they want their employees to succeed in their collective efforts.

And that is while we must adapt to changes around us, we must never lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

4. Above all else, you have to love what you do
As spectators, it’s easy for us to focus simply on the actual event and the outcome of our nation’s athletes, especially in terms of whether they help to increase our country’s overall medal count.

And yet, for the athletes, this event is not simply the moment to showcase their best. It’s also the culmination of years of training and sacrifice; of dedicating their body and mind towards achieving success in however they choose to define it.

It means showing up every day to practice bringing your very best, being willing to fail knowing that you have to pull yourself up to do it all over again. It also means honouring the commitment you’ve made to your coach, to your teammates, and to the organizations that support and guide your efforts to become the very best and someone your country can be proud of.

Seen in that context, it’s quite admirable to think about what these young people are willing to go through for years without any guarantee that they’ll have a shining medal draped around their necks.

And this is probably the most important leadership lesson we can learn from these athletes – that to succeed at bringing out the best in those you lead, you have to love what you do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

You have to genuinely care about your personal mission statement as a leader – that it’s not about what you personally stand to gain from your efforts, but what you will help those under your care to achieve through your leadership.

That’s why the key to mirroring that sustainable drive seen in all of these remarkable athletes – of pushing ourselves to learn and grow, of challenging our beliefs of what we can do, and of how we can help those we lead to succeed – is found not in the pursuit of the proverbial brass ring.

Instead, this driving force to keep pressing ahead grows from the knowledge that this is what you were meant to do, along with the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to create a sense of meaning, purpose, and hopefully a sense of belonging among those you’ve taken on the responsibility to lead.

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