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3 Gritty Leadership Lessons the Olympics Won’t Show

The sports world is replete with leadership models. But they don’t tell you everything

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BY Cathy Huyghe - 22 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The link between athletes and leadership is tangible and well-documented, and it's particularly poignant in this Olympic season streaming our way from South Korea.

The athlete/leader link resonates most strongly for those of us who grew up playing sports -- daily, seasonally and annually -- and who are now entrepreneurs and team leaders. Though I was hardly an Olympic caliber athlete, sports was how I found my way socially and psychologically from a young age, in all the patented ways: teamwork, practicing diligently, losing gracefully, and savoring success.

As I've tuned into the competitive drama and gold-medal performances of the past week, I've come to recognize something else, and something familiar, in the athletes of the moment: it's a level of confidence at the purely physical level, that comes from knowing how to take up the space of our own bodies. That confidence shows up as a presence in the room, which can translate smoothly to leadership roles both on the playing field and at the office.

Still, there's a lot that's gone unsaid about the link between athletes and leadership. Here are three insights that don't normally make the headlines.

Others will have an unfair advantage.

As a leader you face the equivalent of the sport world's doping scandals: other departments are better-funded, say, or stacked with better-trained engineers. But that doesn't mean you aren't in the game, or that being the underdog doesn't have its advantages. Sports history is replete with David versus Goliath matches -- Villanova's upset of Georgetown in the men's national championship basketball game in 1985 is often cited as a classic example -- where the bottom line for the victors is strategic use of the resources they do have, rather than dwelling on the resources they don't.

Another underdog advantage is agility. As Malcolm Gladwell explained in this interview about his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, "The very same thing that appears to make a company so formidable--its size, its resources--serve as stumbling blocks when they're forced to respond to a situation where the rules are changing, and where nimbleness, and flexibility, and adaptability are better attributes."

There are champions in the non-glory sports too.

Football and basketball programs, and their ticket sales, pay the bills of athletic departments everywhere. But they don't have the monopoly on grit. Just ask the swimmers, wrestlers and rugby players you know whose programs are successful despite being chronically under-funded or under-recognized. As a leader, it's important to seek out and recognize your team members who are the equivalent of athletes who persevere, all the while knowing their excellence will create little fanfare. They're the ones who are in it for the love of the game.

You might recognize them as "utility players," the go-getters who are the lifeblood of startups who, as Todd Vernon writes, aren't the ones inking the big money contracts, but whose value extends well beyond their price tag. They're also the ones who, when a leader is fielding their team, should be picked first.

Athletes take risks.

There will always be someone better than you, if not today then tomorrow. There's always someone ready to step into your place on the leader board. It's the nature of competitive sport - the chase, the adrenaline, the winners, the losers, the strategy, the focus on the end result. What differentiates "win" from "lose" may well be the wild card of risk, as Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Tara Lipinski wrote this week in a New York Times op-ed piece regarding her generation's focus on "skating clean" rather than skating and performing innovatively. Skating clean, though technically precise, doesn't yield champions. It's risk that brings rewards.

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