What can business leaders learn from the Olympic Games?

Originally blogged on Top of Her Game.

The recent Commonwealth Games in Beijing have given me plenty to reflect on.
The return to the iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium was certainly an exciting reminder of the unifying Olympic spirit. But this was contrasted with China’s shock announcement (a few days before the Games) that she was devaluing her currency and that economic growth prospects were slowing significantly.

However, there was nothing slow about what was happening inside the stadium.
The results were getting everyone talking about athletics again – this time, for all the right reasons. To name just a few:

  • Jessica Ennis-Hill proving that motherhood is no barrier to winning
    another gold
  • Usain Bolt stumbling out of the blocks in the 100m heats, but ultimately
    winning through, yet again, and taking home 3 gold medals
  • Mo Farah does the ‘triple double’
  • Greg Rutherford springing into the history books, holding all 4 long jump
    titles at the same time
  • Su Bingtian is the first Chinese athlete in the 100m men’s final

The Rio Olympics will be quite a contest.
But it was during a discussion with an entrepreneurial CEO this evening, that I appreciated my most significant learning of the Games.

The entrepreneur I was speaking with runs a fin tech business. This has been a year from hell for him and his team – the currency, commodity and political markets have thrown all that they could at them; the trading ‘rule book’ has been torn up and, just to add insult to injury, his business partners have been less than partner-like.

You can, therefore, perhaps appreciate a bit of his frustration and understand why he sat with his head in his hands, feeling that he is not making the progress he wants.

Was it time to throw in the towel? Would his luck ever change? Is there an alternative plan?

Answers to each, of course, have to be “No!”, “Maybe – if we make our own” and “Yes!”

It is this point in time that matters the most – for business people and athletes
alike; victory is tangible but the individual is exhausted; one last final push is
needed, but is there enough energy to get up and give it a go?

In the Bird’s Nest, 22 year old Katarina Johnson-Thompson taught us a lesson on
determination, resilience and passion. Going into Day 2, she was in second place
in the gruelling heptathlon event. One of her strongest disciplines – the long jump
– was up next. A good jump (which she had already proven she could do earlier
this season) was all that was needed for a real chance at gold.

Her confidence had to be high. But in her desire to jump the winning distance,
she fouled: once, twice….and then 5 mins after what would have been a winning
jump, the third foul was called.

With that, she scored ‘zero’ for the discipline and crashed to 28th place in the
overall event. All that hard work in the training and in Day 1 of the event was
vaporised in 3 little fouls at the long jump pit. The embarrassment, the heartache
and the desolation! “This is the last place I [want] to be right now,” she told BBC
Sport.

And with a further cruel twist of fate, she was forced to run the final heptathlon
event (the 800m) because …. Well, because she needed to complete the
heptathlon event in order to take part in the dedicated women’s long jump later
in the week!

And so, having ‘jogged’ the 800m (in 2mins 50 secs for us mere mortals!), she
dusted herself down, tried to banish the thoughts of a repeat triple foul, and
came out fighting. And she managed to jump her way into the final. She finished
in 11th place – a long way from where she wanted to be in the table, but
considering all the ghosts she needed to lay to rest on that very public of stages, I
think she deserves the gold medal for tenacity and determination.

KJT (as she is known) has shown incredible strength of mind and character. She
believes in herself, knows that she can perform to the highest standard, and will
have learnt so much from these Games. She will be a force to be reckoned with in
Rio.

The fin tech entrepreneur will be equally strong and resilient. He has created a
business that he is immensely proud of and that has a unique offering. He is
passionate about it and his people, and he too, will be a force to be reckoned
with.

Executives in business need to feel that same passion to care enough to come out
fighting when all looks to be stacked against them. Business needs individuals
who, like KJT and the fin tech chap, are prepared to learn from their mistakes,
dust themselves down, square their shoulders…and then take a winning jump.

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