Organizational leaders and elite athletes share a lot in common: Their emphasis on successful routines. Their occasional use of mantras. Their above-average doses of optimism and positive thinking. You can see the connection underscored in these six surprising leadership lessons drawn from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

1. "loose confidence" is a winning strategy

tokyo olympics image
tokyo olympics image

Setting the stage for the men’s indoor volleyball gold-medal match, commentators Paul Sunderland and Kevin Barnett laid out the novel concept “loose confidence.” For France, the heavy underdog, it would be one of the keys to success, they explained. 

But what did they mean by it? Barnett summarized the concept like this: “Be loose or you’ll lose.” What’s the takeaway for executive leadership? 

C-suite takeaway

For organizational leaders, navigating our next normal means operating in an environment that calls for agility on steroids. Which is to say: Potential applications for the concept of loose confidence are almost endless. Continuing to effectively lead teams, despite having limited visibility into workstreams and productivity (for those still working remotely), comes to mind immediately, for example. Stay loose, stay confident and keep performing at your best.   

For what it’s worth, France went on to win the gold.

2. incentivize the things you do best

Athletes ascended to new heights with the debut of sport climbing at the Olympics this year (karate, skateboarding, surfing and three-on-three basketball were the other newcomers). But quantitatively minded viewers might have been drawn to something peculiar about the sport: its scoring system. In sport climbing, individual scores are the product of each climber's finishing position in three different events — meaning a climber who finishes in second, fifth and tenth place in those three events would have a total score of 100. The person with the lowest total score wins. Simple, right?

C-suite takeaway

Think about what such a scoring system incentivizes, because there are applications for organizations here as well. For example, whatever your organization absolutely does better than anyone else, you should redouble your efforts in those areas — in fact, as with the Olympic climbers, people should probably be incentivized in that direction. Under sport climbing’s scoring rubric, after all, a PE firm that’s ranked first for carve-outs, third for restructurings and eighth in divestitures would have all the ingredients for the win versus a firm with a significantly higher overall average — a firm ranked, say, third, third and third — in those same areas.

3. outcomes aren’t contingent on org size

tokyo olympics image
tokyo olympics image

American athletes collectively claimed more gold (39), silver (41) and bronze (33) medals than any other country at the Tokyo Olympics — as they have every year since 1992 (every year, that is, since the fall of the Soviet Union). So the overall medal count tells a familiar story of U.S. athletic prowess, right? 

Well, not so fast. In the eyes of economists, for example, something else about that medal count would probably stand out: namely, the seeming connection between GDP and medals won. In fact, GDP is more strongly linked to performance outcomes at the Olympics than any other factor, including population size.

C-suite takeaway

Agility, productivity, performance — most organizational leaders today recognize that these things go hand in hand, and they’re the reason large incumbents with massive headcounts are often at risk of disruption. Just ask banks, educational institutions or insurers. At the end of the day, it isn’t the size or complexity of your org chart that determines business success. It’s what your people do.

4. address unconscious biases

tokyo olympics image
tokyo olympics image

Early on, the Tokyo Olympics were being touted as a high-water mark for gender equality. Women, who were excluded from the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, would now make up nearly half — 49 percent — of the 11,000-plus participants. New mixed-gender events were added, and for the first time an openly transgender woman would compete as well. 

When did things start to go off the rails? Almost immediately. First, the president of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee publicly stated that, to his chagrin, women were speaking too much in meetings. Then, a Canadian basketball player and breastfeeding mom was denied permission to bring her infant with her to Tokyo (the infant was deemed an “unaccredited person”). Television coverage of the games themselves also seemed problematic to many, with men — who were 82 percent of the live-event commentators — largely controlling the narrative. 

C-suite takeaway

Being isolated from colleagues for so long is in no way an acceptable excuse for discrimination, but there’s a good chance some people on your team at this point don’t know how to act. So, whether or not you have a return-to-office plan in place, now is probably a good time to roll out training around unconscious biases.

5. dialogue about mental health

One month out from the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson won the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic trials, finishing the race in 10.68 seconds — more than a tenth of a second ahead of her nearest competitor. And this is not a long race, mind you. 

Then she tested positive for marijuana, which is classified as a performance-enhancing drug, losing her place on the U.S. team. Richardson explained that anxiety over the trials, heightened by the recent death of her mother, had led her to imbibe. "I know I can't hide myself, so in some type of way I was trying to hide my pain," she said.

C-suite takeaway

Everything about this outcome was unfortunate, obviously. But some parts also seem preventable. All of which ties in to the reasons why, as an organizational leader committed to the success of your people, you should foster an environment in which there’s room for conversation around mental health. After all, roughly two in five adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder at some point during the pandemic, a rate four times what it was during the same period pre-COVID.

What’s more, for companies that have been working remotely for a long time, there’s probably a literal sense to which, paraphrasing Richardson, some colleagues feel like they’ve been “hiding themselves.” How might that translate into regrettable business outcomes? You don’t want to find out. Dialogue is the only way around it.

6. a dash of healthy competition

Heading into the last of 30 laps in the men’s 1,500-meter final, the top six runners were neck and neck — and they just kept pushing it. By the time they arrived at the finish line, all six of them had broken the previous Olympic record

To give you a sense of how fast this race was: When American Matthew Centrowitz Jr. secured gold in the event at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he finished the race with a time of 3:50.00. Which would have put him behind the last-place finisher at this year’s race. By more than 11 seconds.

C-suite takeaway

Close competition is nothing to shy away from. It can elevate performance to new heights and set new benchmarks for success. Encourage your team to embrace it.

what’s your takeaway?

The Tokyo Olympics may be over now, but leadership lessons like these will be relevant for a long time to come — and organizational leaders who want to take home the gold will have a lot of challenges to overcome. With ongoing uncertainty around global public health, an explosion of deals and growth in some sectors of the economy alongside continued contraction in others, there’s just no telling where things will go next.  

In the interim, if you’re looking to bring in leaders with the experience you need to navigate change, find out how Tatum can help. Get in touch with us today.

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