The Olympics: 6 lessons for leaders

Like most people, I have been engrossed in the unfolding spectacle of the Olympic Games. The Great Britain team is breaking all records and, as I write, second only to the USA in the medal table. But those numbers, great as they are, conceal rather than reveal the incredible stories of the young people who are the winners we all admire so much (whether they get medals or not they have done amazingly well to have made it to the Games). Each of their individual stories teaches us what it takes to succeed, to be among the very best. As leaders in organisations, we all want to excel in a similar way, so is there something we can learn from the Olympics that will help us win gold as leaders?  Here are the thoughts that occurred to me:

  1. Inspiration is the key. Every athlete can tell you how they were first inspired to take up their sport and then to go for gold. It may have been watching Usain Bolt or Steve Redgrave or Andy Murray that made them think “I could do that”. It may have been the encouragement and belief of a parent of friend. But without inspiration there would be no medals. And sport has a unique power to inspire people to be better and to do better, even if they can’t all aspire to the very top level. As a leader you need to feel inspired and to inspire others. You could you be the person in someone else’s story.
  2. Opportunity: inspiration is not enough – you also need the chance to practice, to work alongside others who share your passion. As leaders, we need to be alert for opportunities that we can seize with the resources we have available. And if we believe enough in our cause we will be able to create the opportunities we need.
  3. Vision: whether it is Olympic Gold or ridding the world of polio, we need a clear vision that encapsulates our personal and organisational goals, and which we can communicate with power to all those whose support we will need to get there. Being focused on a goal is the first essential step to achieving it.
  4. Coaching: no-one has won a gold medal without a coach to help and guide them; to help them analyse what it will take to win, to find the best route to their objective, and to agree a plan that sets out the steps they need to take to achieve their ambition. Why do we think it is possible to lead an organisation to spectacular success without a coach or mentor to work with? Everyone needs support, especially at the most challenging and critical moments.
  5. Relentless dedication and self-discipline that drives incredible effort. There are times in every athlete’s story when they have felt down and desperate, perhaps through injury or life events, but they have been resilient, they have found the strength to bounce back, their vision has carried them through the pain with unshakeable determination to succeed. For a leader, resilience, commitment and determination are equally vital.
  6. The ability to peak at the right moment – to deliver when it really counts – is also essential. Similarly for a leader, that big pitch, that important speech, that media interview or ministerial meeting can be your make-or-break moments. You need to prepare well, to be confident, to be authentic, and to communicate your passion for your cause.

For many years I have been privileged to work with many great sports personalities and clubs, who have supported children and their rights. They have immense power to inspire, especially young people. They are role models of excellence. Sport engages many young people more than almost anything else. Sport in schools can keep children from dropping out; the desire to do well in sport can help keep them healthy; coaching techniques can help build life skills; the ability to run or to swim can be lifesaving. In the world of international development, sport has a special role to play. And play is a fundamental right of every child.

Right to play

I was proud to be a part of the International Inspiration legacy programme of the London 2012 Olympics, which helped inspire more than 12m children in 20 countries through development programmes in which sport and play were key elements. The Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 also inspired massive public support for the children of the Commonwealth.

As I write it is World Humanitarian Day. Sport and play even have a role in emergencies. I have seen how play can help bring the smiles back to children’s faces in refugee camps and offer a context in which they can begin to come to terms with their experiences.

As the Olympics draws to a close in Rio, perhaps we can learn from the success of our great Olympians, and resolve to harness the power of sport to make a positive difference to a world so often in turmoil.

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