Sport offers us a rich and intuitive window into the world of leadership and team dynamics – a leader’s success or failure is public and his/her style is on display for all to see. What can executives and aspiring corporate leaders learn from sports? In every race, game and match, athletes compete in mind, body and spirit to out wit, out pace and out hustle the opposition. These efforts serve as testaments to what is humanly possible, offering insight into what it means to be a valiant teammate and memorable leader.
With the Olympics upon us, nearly 10,000 athletes from 204 countries are set to compete in 300 events, and the opportunity to learn leadership lessons from the intensity of international competition shouldn’t be missed. Who will make their way into the history books and how? Keep your eye on the following storylines that have the potential to serve as memorable case studies for how to both lead teams and seize opportunity.
Whether it’s an engineer, a salesperson or a basketball player, great performers are not always great leaders. When leaders are not actively developed, the consequence can be low morale and poor performance. The best leaders prepare new managers and help turn their talent at tasks into leadership gold. The United States Basketball team has won 13 gold medals. In fact, they’ve only lost gold three times since 1936. It’s a dominant organization, and this year’s Olympic squad should be no different.
While skill and talent will be on display, leadership may be an intriguing subplot. It is being widely publicized that the U. S. team will be leaning on the leadership of Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, but are either equipped?
Bryant is the oldest player on the team, and his 16 years in the NBA bring invaluable experience. But, he’s already being criticized for comparing this team to the 1992 Dream Team, and his immature and aloof antics have historically hurt him. Can he set his ego aside for the good of the team? James may be the steadier personality, and many believe that winning his first NBA championship earlier this year will result in needed confidence. However, he’s never had to be the sole leader in such a dramatic setting. The Olympics is a world stage, and playing for a country can be pressure packed.
For James and Kobe to succeed, they will both need to put the team before themselves, defer to the coaches, support the players around them, and let their play do the talking. While the U. S. will be riding a wave of proven talent, watching these all-stars evolve into leadership roles will provide distinct examples of the efforts great performers need to make to lead successful teams in the office or on the court.
Great Britain Soccer
When top performers and notable leaders leave the team, finding replacements can be daunting. A major omission from the Great Britain Olympic soccer team is David Beckham. The super-star was cut earlier this year, leaving a leadership void on a roster brimming with talent. With Beckham out, Great Britain turned to the 38-year-old Welshman, Ryan Giggs. Interestingly, while one of the most decorated soccer players in the history of Great Britain, Giggs has never played in a major international final.
Giggs is a well-proven and respected pro, amassing 22 professional seasons, 12 Premier League winner’s medals, four FA Cup championships, and two Champions League titles, but is an unproven leader on the international stage. If Giggs just does what he’s capable of, he’ll prove a memorable leader. He’s been in pressure filled situations before and clearly succeeded. By supporting his teammates while drawing on his unique storehouse of experience, he will likely prove as effective a leader at the Olympics as he has throughout his professional career.
Great Britain has its sights on gold, and has confidence in Giggs for what he has done as opposed to obsessing about what he hasn’t. High achievers deserve their shot, and with support, they generally make the most of their opportunities. Great Britain is supporting Giggs. He was made captain, and the coaching staff is publicly praising his efforts while including him in coaching meetings and asking his advice. It’ll be interesting to see how far Great Britain can advance on the back of an eager achiever who is motivated to perform on a global stage. What high performers in your organization deserve their shot, and how far will they take you?
United States Olympic Uniforms
Too often leaders minimize the scope of their impact. Leading organizations and individuals have opportunities to positively influence the lives and decisions of others, and when that influence is minimized, criticism can result.
Currently, the United States Olympic Committee is under fire from Congress because of what it didn’t consider. While this battle won’t play out in an arena, there’s outrage over the Olympic Committee’s use of funds to purchase Chinese made uniforms. Sport transcends the field of play, and the message the USOC is sending to supporters throughout the United States is certainly worth questioning.
While Ralph Lauren is the American company outfitting the Olympic teams, the uniforms were manufactured in China. With the American textile and garment industry suffering from the recession, politicians in DC are wondering why U. S. athletes can’t be outfitted with clothes made in the U. S. It’s still in question whether all of Congress wears American-made clothing, but the point that the USOC could have thought to create jobs for American manufacturers is a good one.
Perhaps the USOC didn’t consider that it is in a position to inspire and rally the entire country, but at a time when the Olympics can be making a positive and systemic impact, the USOC should be thinking more broadly. As this story plays out, it’s worth considering the impact you and your organization can have. Are you thinking broadly enough?
Saudi Arabian Women
In both business and sport, leadership opportunities sometimes emerge from the unlikeliest of places – and they can have a profound and lasting impact. Through mid-July, Saudi Arabia was the only competing nation in the Olympics to not send a female athlete to the Olympic Games. After concern from human rights activists and political pressure, on July 12th the country announced that two women were selected to represent Saudi Arabia in London.
While little is known about the two competitors - Sarah Attar, who will run the 800-meters, and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo- history will be made, as the London Games will be the first Olympics to include women athletes from every competing nation. The Olympics has historically served as a symbol of equality, harmony, and compassion, and has now fully expanded this platform to both sexes.
As these Saudi Arabian female athletes gain international attention for their roles in Olympic history, how can they be best supported to maximize their positive impact? How can you support the unlikely heroes in your organization to maximize their impact, and advance a larger good?
All of these stories will serve as rich fodder for leadership discussion and debate, and many more will likely crop up in the weeks ahead. Let us know your thoughts, and keep us posted on any leadership lessons you see playing out during the Olympic Games.
Dan Leidl and Joe Frontiera are a managing partners of Meno Consulting and co-authors of the book Team Turnarounds, published by Jossey-Bass. Email them with comments and ideas for future pieces, or connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.