Like many of you, my family has been glued to the Olympic coverage each evening, rooting furiously for our athletes and experiencing what announcer Jim McKay referred to as the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”  Because I’m not a very good television-only participant, as I watch the games, I’ve been wondering: what leadership lessons can be learned from these Olympic athletes and their performance? This blog will contain my take-aways so far.

Our American Olympians have illustrated a number of admirable leadership attributes and behaviors that can serve as lessons to us all, including:

  • An ability to envision and commit to an aspirational goal.  Olympic athletes tell stories of when they first realized they wanted to compete on the world’s stage.  They speak of when they knew that someday they would participate in the games.  That ability to envision such an otherworldly goal, express it to others and then focus each day on achieving it is something truly great leaders do.
  • The willingness to put in the time and effort to achieve excellence.  By training every single day for years, focusing on building stamina, refining technical elements and striving to get better with each performance, Olympians show us that world-class performance demands dedication and commitment.  Even when they haven’t medaled, it has been heart-warming to hear athletes say that they garner great satisfaction from knowing that they did their absolute best.  Great leaders give their goal or objective everything they’ve got.
  • The discipline and will to sacrifice for their commitment.  There is a commercial playing during the Olympics where the athletes share things that they have not done as they’ve pursued their dream.  Statements like, “I haven’t had dessert in two years,” or “I haven’t read the latest best seller everyone is talking about,” or “I haven’t had a day off in over a year.”  In addition to putting in the time and effort, leading in your craft requires the discipline to prioritize, to say no to some things so that other things can thrive, and the ability to put aside your selfish interest when it conflicts with the goal.  Do you have that kind of mental fortitude and strength?
  • The strength to persevere through pain and failure.  We’ve had plenty of examples of this in these games, but the most recent is the performance of the American Women’s Gymnastics team members.  16-year-old McKayla Maroney chose to compete with an injured toe, putting aside any physical pain so that she could contribute her special vaulting talent to the team.  Jordan Wieber, the reigning World Champion in all-around gymnastics narrowly missed the opportunity to defend her title and compete in the all-around for the American team on Sunday.  Naturally, she was deeply disappointed and, because of her status, her “defeat” was projected across every media outlet across the globe all day on Monday.  But Jordan had to show up “at work” on Tuesday, regardless of what the grapevine was saying, and decide what sort of leadership she was going to exhibit in the face of this disappointment and drama.  The example she set in her interviews after her disappointment, in the way she interacted with her teammates who earned their spot in the all-around in her place and in the way she approached her “job” performance in the team competition last night was awe-inspiring.  She rose above all of the noise – internal and external – and contributed with grace, determination and joy – to aid her team in achieving Olympic Gold.  Great leaders have to swallow disappointment and failure and come back stronger and even more self-possessed and poised; determined to achieve their goal.
  • An ability to accept coaching and input from others.  Alongside each Olympic athlete is at least one dedicated coach, putting in the same time, effort and dedication as their athlete.  Often, the coach requests unreasonable efforts, mind-blowing performance achievements and continually suggests ways their athlete can improve.  Great athletes, and leaders, accept coaching and feedback from others.  They trust in their coach, they accept their requests and push for the milestones their coach sets.  And they are often rewarded with growth and success beyond that which they could have achieved on their own.
  • A willingness to ask for help and a dedication to work as a team.  It isn’t lost on me that Michael Phelps, who is often criticized for his lack of teamwork and inflated ego, achieved his historic 19th Olympic medal in a team event – the 4x200-meter Freestyle Relay -- in part because of his own humility and the generosity of his teammates.  Coming off of a disappointing and energy-sapping 200-meter Butterfly earlier that day, Phelps put aside his ego and asked his teammates to give him as much of a lead as possible in his anchor role.  He needed this extra effort from his teammates because of his fatigue and the fact that he was going to swim against perhaps the fastest Freestyle swimmer in the world, Yannick Agnel.  His teammates, Ryan Lochte, Connor Dwyer and Ricky Berens, each swam their hearts out, giving Phelps a 3-second, 2-body length lead over Agnel as he swam his leg and became the most decorated Olympian ever.  Great leaders are vulnerable enough to ask for support from others and understand that their greatest successes often come as the result of the commitment and loyalty of their team.

What other leadership lessons have you learned from the 2012 Olympics?  How can you be more Olympian in your performance at work or at home?  Please share your insights – I’m interested!