Are you, like me, an Olympic junkie? I am not proud to admit how many hours I have devoted to watching the athletic pursuits of others. The twizzle. The back-sided 360. The hammer. Though the hours i’ve spent perched in front of my tv, I have learned more about ice dance, half-pipe and curling than I could have ever imagined. But as I watched the athletic heroics unfold before me another trend started to emerge, a trend of leadership lessons.
But I wasn’t alone in uncovering these leadership trends, Tom Fox was also on the case. Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that sports lends itself nicely to leadership metaphors.
“The expectations on Olympic athletes are weighty. It is easy to draw parallels from both the good, the bad and the ugly of what we are seeing right now at the Olympics to federal workers,” said Fox. “Employees are looking for leaders to send signals of how they are supposed to handle these difficult circumstances. Day in and day out, your employees will take their cues from you. It really is important as a leader to be intentional about how you present yourself.”
Fox’s Five Lessons from the Olympics:
- Relish the moment, don’t stress about it
- “The first Olympic medal was awarded to an American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg. Folks gravitated towards him and his carefree attitude. It was his carefree attitude that allowed him to shine under perhaps the most impressive spotlight imaginable. When you face those big moments, take a deep breath. Express some confidence. This attitude will help you perform at your very best, but it will also set the tone for your team. The confidence your project is the confidence they will possess. Fake it until you make it.”
- Failures are an opportunity to not make excuses.
- “It is human nature when you don’t live up to expectations to make excuses. You hear this from a lot of different athletes who went in as a favorite, they will blame the warm weather or the cloudy sky. They will blame another number of different factors, but not their own performance. Last week the big story was the race suits that the US speed skates wore. They changed suits and they still didn’t get a medal. It is easy to make excuses, but you really make a name as a leader when you step up and say ‘Things didn’t really go as planned, I am responsible.’ This sends an important signal that even when you fail you can derive some lessons learned and do better the next time.”
- Second chances do come around.
- A few weeks ago, figure skater, Ashley Wagner, was placed on the Olympic team despite performing poorly in the US Nationals. There were more than a few raised eyebrows about the actions that she took after Nationals. She altered her preparations and her routine right before going into the winter Olympics, but her performance during the Olympic team figure skating competition allowed the team to take the bronze medal. Her experience is a good one for those of us in the government space, that we all deserve a second chance, but you have to work to make the most of those new opportunities. That should extend to your team as well, give them a second chance if you are willing to work for it.”
- There are ways to break through barriers.
- “One of the fun stories from the first week of the Olympics was the story of bobsledder Johnny Quinn who had to literally break through the door of his hotel bathroom. He left a human sized hole in the door. There are so many difficulties we all face, it can be easy to sit idly by and say, ‘I wish I had a big budget, more hiring authority, etc.’ The folks that are really succeeding at those Olympians who literally and figuratively break through their barriers.”
- Don’t forget the personal touch
- “My favorite story from these games was written up by the Washington Post’s Mike Wise. He doesn’t often write many kind stories about athletes. He is a tough nut to crack, but he wrote a very nice story about Shaun White. Wise went into the Olympics prepared to write a story about White had become too big for the sport, how he was an isolated athlete and not really part of the snowboarding community. What he found was the opposite. Despite White having failed to win a gold medal in an event that he was heavily favored to win, White took the time to hang out with a couple of recovering cancer patients. These were a couple of kids who had traveled to Sochi as part of Make a Wish just to watch him snowboard. They didn’t think they would meet White. Instead he vaulted past the barrier that separates the event spectators from the athletes and gave these two young cancer patients high fives and hugs. It is important for leaders to remember the same thing. When things are going awry it is easy to get withdrawn and separate yourself from others, but the best thing you can do is get out there and make sure you are continuing to connect. Keep people focused on the joint goals you are trying to achieve. The Flying Tomato’s behavior in the face of failure is really the top leadership lesson from me from the Olympics at this moment.”
“The most effective leaders look for leadership lessons in everyday walks of life. Use these everyday moments as reminders of how you should carry yourself for the rest of the day. Maybe you see someone on the metro who is struggling, they are pushing to succeed despite all the obstacles they are facing. How can you use that as a reminder for yourself for the rest of the day,” said Fox.
What are your Olympic leadership lessons?