Leadership Lessons from London (Part 1)

Published on 2012-08-08

Source: Maykal@flickrLet me start out by admitting to an addiction. I have nobody to blame but myself. I thought I could control it. It was only a little bit everyday. How could that hurt? I was a fool! What began as a passing interest, quickly became an obsession and now, as I face the prospect of my supply being cut off by the end of the week, I am beginning to panic.
I talk of course about the London Olympic Games. I cannot get enough of the tension, drama and the highs and lows, served up to me on a daily basis by people who have dedicated years of their lives to the pursuit of Olympic glory.
There is no doubt that, for a British guy, these Olympics are more special than those which have preceded it. Any automatic patriotic/ jingoistic/ nationalistic tendencies (delete depending on your attitude to flag waving) which I may have had, have been accentuated by the fact that Team GB have shocked even the most optimistic of us with their performance so far.
I do like a good ‘triumph over adversity’ story and if pushed, might admit to tearing up a bit on occasion. I got a bit misty-eyed when Laura Trott, born with a collapsed lung and plagued with lifelong health issues, won her second cycling Gold of the games. I was dabbing at my eyes when Gemma Gibbons, having realised that by winning her judo semi-final, was guaranteed a silver or gold medal, looked up to the skies and mouthed ‘I love you Mum’ to her mother who had died only months earlier. I could go on, but then this blog would be 5,000 words long before I even reached the main topic.
The Olympics, like business, is competitive on a number of levels. Individuals seek to improve their personal bests, to outperform rivals and, as members of the national team, to achieve greater results than other teams. It is only natural then that the planning, behaviour and reactions on display in the world’s greatest athletic exhibition, mirror those in our daily work. I thought that, for this blog, I would look at one issue which we as managers may learn from.
Bench-marking Individual Success
Great Britain has, in recent years, become accustomed to glorious failure and mediocrity rather than success on the sporting front. As a boy/ teenager/ young adult, I remember any British Olympic victory was announced with a note of surprise by the commentator. The 19 golds won and 3rd place finish in the medal table in the 2008 Beijing games changed that. In the countdown to London, armchair experts all over the British Isles were predicting a record medal haul.
Two days after the world witnessed Tolkienesque scenes of countryside devastation and industrialisation as part of the opening ceremonies, Britain was still without a medal. Just as the viewing public settled into the British default position of ‘I knew they would blow it’, the Olympic heavens opened and it started raining medals on Team GB.
By the time ‘Super Saturday’ came round, it had begun to appear that if Jabba the Hutt put on a GB shirt then he would stand a fair chance of beating Usain Bolt in the 100m. Gold followed Gold. The British national anthem seemed to be playing on a constant loop. Great Britain went Olympic crazy. Cool Britannia! We wanted more…..and more……AND MORE!!!!!!
Demonstrating the kind of memory loss normally associated with serious head injuries, the British public instantly forgot that all the facts showed we were overachieving to the power 10. I even read some comments stating that, as China is traditionally weaker in the second half of the Olympics, we might have a chance of 2nd in the medal table.
Now, I am a big fan of positivity. Aim for the stars and land on a cloud etc. However, there is a downside to this unchecked medal expectation. Twenty years ago, a Bronze medal in an event with only three participants would have earned the recipient a knighthood and the freedom of the city of London. Suddenly though, in 2012, gold was the colour of success and anything less amounted to little more than failure. This was not just the attitude of the public. A number of British athletes have already been shown on TV, sobbing their apologies to the UK for failing and ONLY taking home a silver. Ah, how soon we forget.
I am in awe of the sporting Gods who can cover 100m in the time it takes me to light a cigarette, or who can leap to heights which I would only attempt with the aid of an elevator, escalator or at a push, a long ladder. However, I am equally impressed with the athlete from Equatorial New Guinea who finishes the marathon 3 weeks after everyone else, but in a time lower than he/ she had ever done before. I am not alone in this (thank goodness). Evidence of this came early in the games when a Nigerian rower, who would not have qualified for the next round even if he fitted an engine to his boat, received a standing ovation as he crossed the finishing line.
My concern is that, by focusing so heavily on the elite of the elite and setting their performances up as a benchmark, we condemn a large number of athletes to a feeling of failure when in reality their performances have been excellent. Focusing solely on outstanding results can have a demotivating effect on those who have tried their best and achieved more than satisfactory results.
Moving away from the athletic example for a second, those of you with a grasp of Soviet history will know of Alexei Stakhanov. This man mountain achieved national fame for his ability to dig prodigious amounts of coal. He was awarded special privileges by the Soviet leadership. His production levels were then used as an example to all the other miners. His abilities far exceeded theirs and so, by gauging his production to be the benchmark, thousands of miners were deemed to be underachieving and thus invited to visit Siberia on an unlimited duration visa.
It is right that we reward the superhuman achievements of those who, in their chosen field are able to produce results far beyond we mere mortals. We should be careful though, that the adulation heaped upon them does not have a negative impact on others. Success is largely relative. Lest we forget, for every Zhang Jike (2012 Olympic table Tennis Champion) there are hundreds of Paul Drinkhalls (British Champion and world number 3,000,000)