Who, Me? An Olympian?

  1. August 7th, 2012  | 

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Published in Event, Leadership, Organization Health, Strategic Planning

The 30th Olympiad opened 10 days ago, attracting nearly 11,000 athletes from 204 countries competing in about 300 events.

Modern era games have come a long way from the ancient Olympics, which are believed to have started in 776 B.C. with a footrace on the Greek island of Olympia.

Business leaders go for the gold every year, contending for top honors in “Best Places to Work” surveys, “Most Admired Companies” studies and “Top 100” competitions.

And while you battle significant issues outside and inside your organization, the first battle you fight is the one between your ears.

Mental toughness is a vital characteristic you must possess to win in today’s race for success.

How might you have responded if faced with these Olympic-sized hurdles?

A Winning Mindset

Jesse Owens competed with racism and Nazis before he faced a formidable field of athletes and wrote his name in the record books. The 1936 Summer Games in Berlin were the first games to be televised, though only locally. Hitler wanted to show the world a resurgent Germany and expected German athletes to demonstrate the concept of Aryan superiority. Owens overcame physical and psychological obstacles to win a record four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4×100-meter relay. Once back in the US, Owens’ mental toughness continued to be tested: Following a ticker tape parade in his honor, Owens was forced to ride the freight elevator in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to attend the reception honoring him.

Roger Banister finished fourth in the 1500-meter race at the 1952 Olympics, though he set a British record for his time in that race. After his Olympic setback, Bannister spent two months deciding whether to abandon running. Instead, he set a new goal: to be the first man to run a four-minute mile, a feat thought impossible. On 6 May 1954, before 3,000 spectators in Oxford, England, Bannister achieved the impossible, running the mile in a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Mental training was every bit as important as his physical training.

The 1980 USA hockey team faced Soviet hockey players in a game pitting amateurs against professionals. The Soviets had outscored their competition 175 – 44 the last 20 years, winning virtually every world championship since 1954. Before the game, American coach Herb Brooks told his team that “if we played ‘em 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight we skate with ‘em. Tonight we stay with ‘em. And we shut ‘em down because we can! This is your time!” The Americans lacked world class talent, but they had the heart, the teamwork and the mental toughness to win 4-3 for a Miracle on Ice.

Greg Louganis is the only male and only the second diver in Olympic history to sweep the diving events in consecutive Olympic Games, a feat made all the more impressive due to his inability to compete in the 1980 Summer Games because of the US boycott. He is the only diver to earn a perfect score of 10 from all seven judges in international competition in 1982. But it was the 1988 games where Louganis overcame adversity. On his ninth dive of the preliminary round, Louganis hit his head on the springboard attempting a reverse two-and-a-half pike. Reeling from a concussion and with stitches in his scalp, Louganis returned to perform the last dive of the preliminaries and register the highest score. The next day he won gold, and then earned gold in the 10 meter event.

Hermann Maier made his World Cup debut at age 23 in 1996. The following year, the Austrian skier won his first World Cup event and established himself as a risk-taking racer. During the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, Maier suffered a spectacular crash in a downhill run, flying more than 30 feet in the air through two layers of protective course netting at a speed of approximately 80 mph, tumbling head over heels and landing awkwardly on his helmet. Maier suffered only minor injuries but spectators wondered How will this crash affect his confidence? “The Herminator” responded by winning gold in the giant slalom and Super-G several days later.

Kerri Strug was not the star of the women’s gymnastics team, the Magnificent 7, but she became one during the 1996 Summer Games. In her first vault she landed poorly, injuring her left ankle and scoring 9.162. For the Americans to beat the Russians for the gold, Strug would have to perform a second vault and land on her injured ankle. In between vaults, Strug asked coach Béla Károlyi, “Do we need this?” “Kerri,” the coach replied, “we need you to go one more time…for the gold. You can do it.” Strug limped to the runway, completed her vault, landed briefly on both feet before hopping onto her good foot and saluting the judges. She then collapsed and was carried from the mat by her coach. She scored 9.772, earning the Americans the gold medal.

Go for the Gold: Overcoming Adversity

There’s plenty of adversity to overcome in the business world. To win, consider these factors:

  1. Competency counts. How well do you understand and execute your competitive advantage?
  2. Commitment counts, too. Today’s loser is tomorrow’s winner. Don’t quit. Stay focused.
  3. Be specific about your outcome. Without a clear objective, you and your team will struggle.
  4. Understand your current situation. You can’t improve if you don’t know where you’re starting from. Be realistic.
  5. Track execution. Olympians measure performance. Connect what you’re measuring to the outcomes you say you want.
  6. Adjust as needed. Learn from mistakes. Change programs, processes and people that aren’t delivering the results you expect.
  7. Celebrate wins. The Games recognize winners with brief ceremonies. Be sure to celebrate your team’s achievements.

Just as athletes train for years to reach the Olympics, the leaders I work with are starting to schedule strategic planning sessions to make sure their team comes out of the gate fast in 2013.

I’ll examine the 10 Biggest Strategic Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them in a Sept. 7 webinar.

Fewer than one percent of the athletes competing in the Summer Games wins a medal. Consider this perspective from American Taylor Phinney, who finished well ahead of expectations yet finished fourth in the road race event: “Fourth place,” he said, “is the worst place you can imagine.”

Are you and your team ready to perform at Olympic levels?

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 250 strategic planning sessions, he’s delivered more than 600 keynotes and workshops on every continent except Antarctica, and he coaches leaders who are inspired to take their career to the next level. His fourth leadership book— Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill) —is a Soundview Executive Best Business Book.

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