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Top ten leadership lessons from the summer of sport

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For us Londoners, it’s been an amazing summer of sporting achievement.  Whether you remember the Queen apparently leaping from a helicopter, David Beckham racing up the Thames with the Olympic torch, or any one of the remarkable athletic achievements, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  Some of the most profound lessons in leadership, for me, came from the Paralympic games.

There’s so much to learn from the courage, commitment and athleticism of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and here are the leadership qualities I saw. 

  1. It’s ok for leaders to talk about difficult subjects: the very fact that we can express our admiration for the Paralympics is itself a tribute to the event.
    • Discussion about the different disabilities, in an open and clear way, has been a feature of the UK television coverage.
    • The various levels of disability and the way it’s affected people, was presented in a frank and honest manner.
    • Leadership is as much about honest conversations about what’s not right, what needs to be better, as it is about motivating people to aspire towards better.
  2. It takes time to communicate complex things in a simple way: the ‘Lexi’ classification system took the 20 sports and the range of disabilities and turned them into an easy-to-understand graphical explanation of the Paralympic regulations.
    • It took a team two years to put this together, and thanks to their efforts, it took viewers like me less than 2 minutes to understand the system.
    • Leadership is itself complex, and sometimes what we ask of the people who work for us is also complex.
    • Investing time in communicating complexity in ways that your audience can understand and buy into, will pay dividends when you need them to implement change.
  3. Focus on what you can do  – don’t be defined by your weaknesses:
    • Paralympians are athletes first, disabled people second.  Their goal is to stretch their physical abilities – whatever they might be, to the limit.
    • When we focus on trying to develop what we’re less good at – whether that’s a technical skill, or introducing a new process – we define ourselves by our weaknesses and risk draining our energies.
    • Better to find ways to compensate for those elements and focus on the energy and fulfilment we get from delivering from our strengths.
    • Yes, there’s a paradox here: we may need to upskill from time to time.  We give ourselves the best chance of success when we give ourselves fully to a new challenge.
  4. When you fall over  – it hurts; when you fall over – get up again.
    • As leaders we have to let people try, and sometimes fail.  If we shelter them too much, they’ll become dependent upon us, and resentful of that dependency.
    • When we treat our team members as intelligent, resourceful adults, the chances are that they will try to live up to our expectations.
    • And when they don’t meet the challenges, we need to support them to pick themselves up and learn from falling over.
    • I challenge you to label ‘failure’ as future success; then falling over becomes part of the investment in success, rather than a barrier.
  5. When you lose, it hurts: despite the media’s love of drama, the message to leaders has to be – don’t take an interview within 5 minutes of coming second.
    • We’re only human and when things don’t go our way, we can all hit out with the tendency to blame others.
    • This is our primitive brain reacting, and we may not be able to control its response in the heat of the moment
    • Better to be in control and choose when to speak and communicate to empathise, rather than to hit out.
  6. Use new technologies to your advantage: from streamlined design and space-age wheelchairs, to the amazing prosthetics, 2012 has been about new materials, careful design and good fit.
    • In today’s world we can all use technologies to help us do our job better, selecting the right tool for the job.
    • Enabling our teams to access the best resources is a key part of being a 21st century leader.
  7. Train with the best.  Here in the UK, Paralympians often train alongside able-bodied people – in the full knowledge that there will always be a gap between aspiration and ability.
    • Working alongside the best stretches us all to achieve the Olympic ideals of higher, faster, stronger.
    • If we want to create leaders of the future, ensure they get the chance to experience life alongside the best in your organisation.
    • If we want to improve our own capabilities, then spending time in the company of experts will stretch us.
  8. Build a winning team: It seems that no-one here in Britain wants our summer of sport to end.  The tennis player Andy Murray, who finally won his first Grand Slam tennis match after ten years of trying, has extended our summer and provided more lessons in success:
  • He’s created a winning team around him: to coach and stretch him further.
  • He has a reputation of hiring and firing until he’s found his dream team.We can’t always be people-pleasers; we need the right people around us to achieve our goals.
  • That doesn’t make those who don’t stay in the team ‘failures’ – they may just not be right for that team and will go on to succeed somewhere else.

       9. Recognise your achievers: So as the British Summer of Sport really does come to an end, we have one more thing to look forward to: the new national honours list for our sporting heroes.

    • The honours list is a way of recognising achievement and endeavour: it acknowledges the efforts of those who work behind the scenes, as coaches and technicians, as much as the heroes.
    • Have a recognition system in place – acknowledge the great work of those who have achieved, and  inspire others going forward.

    10. Recognise your own role as a model for future leaders

    • Our Olympians and Paralympians have been given very fast feedback on how what they do and say impacts on people.  They’ve quickly realised that they are truly role models and have learned to modify their language and apologise publicly, when they’ve got it wrong.
    • As a leader of others, you are a role model and leaders need to walk and talk good leadership.
    • Paradoxically, in order to inspire the next generation we also need to engage with and learn from, their intelligence and abilities.

Before I leave this topic, a moment’s pause:  I’m publishing this blog on the 11th September out of respect for all those who suffered from the New York attacks 11 years ago.

At the opening Olympic Ceremony, I was profoundly touched by the Emeli Sande version of ‘Abide with Me’ to the Akram Khan Dance Company in memory of those affected by the 7/7 bombings in London the day after the Olympic venue was announced.  It expresses, in dance and music, so much more than words alone.  If you’ve got 6 minutes to spare, watch this and prepare to be moved:

I’m looking forward to enjoying achievements in other spheres, not just sport, as I continue to work with people around the world and learn from their cultures of leadership and excellence.

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Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

13 thoughts on “Top ten leadership lessons from the summer of sport

  1. “Some great insights here spoken from the heart! Helen asks “who is your favourite olympian?” – as one who stood on the pavement yesterday in the City to celebrate the GB Teams I could not choose. Every individual has their own unique story and I cannot imagine the courage and determination every single person had, whether they won a medal or not! Well done to everyone – we are all very proud of you!”

  2. “Helen, It’s just too difficult to pick one..even if you were to put a gun to my head! All of them that won or did a PB are heroes. This article is so great – having taken three increasingly nasty falls off horses in the last 3 weeks number 4 had particular poignancy for me. Yes it hurts, but when you get back on and confront then conquer your fears it feels fantastic.”

  3. “If I had to choose it would be the 6 or 7 people they asked to carry the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony, and especially Mohammed Ali!”

  4. Great piece Helen. We have indeed been privileged this summer with so much amazing talent on display and so many heart-warming stories. I have been most impressed by the way that the athletes (in the main) have conducted themselves. They have shown genuine humility, respect for their fellow competitors, and gratitude for their support team (family, coaches, physios, team-mates etc). Truly inspirational.

  5. At a time when the Olympics and Paralympics seem to be used for everything this is relevant, inspiring and extremely useful. To pick any one athlete would be difficult (I can’t believe that they are actually still going to have one BBC Sports Personality this year) – the real winner has been the team work. All the athletes supporting each other, the coaching teams etc supporting them, the volunteers and employees supporting the games and I could go on. Isn’t it often the way that great teams will have a beacon whom everyone gives credit to (and as in the case of the athletes credit is usually deserved) and yet internally everyone realises that the whole team has contributed to the achievements

    • I think you’ve hit upon the reason why no-one wants this to end Steph – people feel so involved and engaged – and the teams are circles rippling out from individual athletes – or in the case of the Games Makers – from the venues. Thank you for your insightful comments.

  6. Thanks for a great post today! I just wish that we in the US would have seen more than 3 hours of the Paralympics. Such inspiring stories! It touched my heart much deeper than the Olympics.

  7. Oh Helen,
    Thank you for sharing that beautiful video. I hadn’t heard about it since as you mentioned elsewhere it was cut by NBC in their opening night coverage. What were they thinking? So glad you brought it to my attention. Such haunting imagery…

  8. Thanks for your response Rochelle. For me, music and dance can express so much emotion that words alone can’t.

    I’m trying to find out if the Paralympics will be available on DVD – the BBC have already promised an Olympics DVD- with opening/closing ceremonies – but I imagine it will be very UK-centric! We’re already looking forward to the Latin flavours of the Brazil Olympics in 4 years time…

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