5 Leadership Lessons from the Tokyo Olympics

The lessons you can learn from competition are significant

David FullerMy Olympic fascination started in 1976 when the summer games took place in Montreal.

As a 12-year-old, I was glued to our black and white 12-inch TV for the duration of the Olympics between chores on our family’s hobby farm. I imagined myself on the track pole vaulting 20 feet in the air, swimming on the Canadian hundred-meter relay team with Stephen Pickell, Graham Smith, Clay Evans, and Gary MacDonald, and boxing with Michael Spinks.

Like every other teenage boy watching the Olympics that summer, I am pretty sure that I was smitten with 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci from Romania who scored perfect 10’s in gymnastics.

It took me a couple of days to catch the Olympic spirit in 2021, but when I did, I was once again captivated. Sure, one could argue that the Olympics are simply a distraction from the routines of everyday life, a financial burden on the host country and a diversion of needed resources for those needy poor from participating countries.

The Olympics are meant to be a celebration of sport, the human body and the human spirit from which leaders can take a few lessons to use in their own organizations.

Plan and think long term: Olympic athletes need to think long term to ensure that they are in the prime of their life to compete at such high levels. Unfortunately, as business leaders, more often than not our focus is concentrated on business in the next three months, six months or even the following 12 months. Rarely do we imagine what life will be like in four years or make plans to achieve significant goals. What are you doing to put a team of support together to ensure that you achieve something significant in four to eight years?

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Be Patient: Imagine opening a new business. You have made all the plans, ordered all your products, hired the right staff, and then you have to put everything on hold. Yes, it happens; when you are an Olympic athlete, having trained for four years and then, a few months before your big event, everything is put on hold for another year, patience can go out the window. In business, we often forget that, just as an Olympic medal doesn’t happen overnight, neither does fantastic success in our organization or careers. Persistence and consistency are the keys to achieving results. Yet often, as leaders, we are in such a rush to succeed that we fail to stick to our plan and do the work necessary to keep our staff and customers happy and grow our organization.

Age Doesn’t Matter as much as you might think! My 13-year-old son Caleb was thrilled to watch the teenagers, two 13-year-old and 16-year-old girls, sweep the Women’s Skateboarding in the Olympics this week. I was just as thrilled to hear that a 66-year-old Australian competitor named Mary Hanna was competing in her 7th Olympics. In business, we often think we are too old or too young to make a difference. As with the Olympics, age doesn’t have as much to do with success as determination, hard work, and creativity. Warren Buffet made more money after he was 65. We have all heard of Harlan Sanders who started Kentucky Fried Chicken at the age of 62 and then there is Mark Zuckerberg who started Facebook at the age of 19.

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You Can Beat the Odds if you don’t Give Up! Ahmed Hafnaoui had the swim of his life to get to the Men’s 400-meter freestyle swimming final and, against all odds, won the gold medal. France beat the U.S. in basketball, upsetting a team that hasn’t lost a game in the Olympics since 2004! In women’s cycling, weekend warrior Anna Kiesenhofera, a math professor without any team support, upset the Dutch powerhouse team by leading the race for most of the 137 km. As leaders, we too can beat the odds and the competition if we are creative, and believe in ourselves and engage our team to believe. But wait! If that isn’t enough, consider the paralympic athletes who are going to compete in the coming weeks and the challenges they have had to overcome to try to be the best in the world.

Not Everyone Can Be the Ultimate Winner so Have More Fun! You have heard the saying that there is more to life than winning. This is true, and yet, when we are trying to do our best, we are often so serious that we forget to have fun. Whether it’s in business or the Olympics, taking some time for fun can make all the difference. While watching Olympic skateboarding, you couldn’t help but notice that the 13-year-old youngsters were celebrating the success of all the other athletes as they made their rides. Watch the basketball, or most team events for that matter and see the comradery that is in play between competitors. While competing in sports or business at high levels can be serious business, research shows that we do better when we don’t take ourselves so seriously and have more fun!

While the Olympics might not be on the screen of many leaders caught up in their day-to-day activities, the lessons they can learn from competition and the effects on their day-to-day performance as leaders are significant. I am hoping to catch a few more hours viewing the best athletes in the world over the next few weeks as they strive to do their best and make their nations, friends and family proud of their accomplishments.

Dave Fuller, MBA, is a weekend warrior, an Award-Winning Business Coach, and the author of the book Profit Yourself Healthy. For interview requests, click here.


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