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Want to learn about leadership? Watch the Olympic Games.

1996-olympics-with-usoc-executive-staff-at-the-white-house
Jay Greaves in 1996, in front of The White House with four members of the US Olympic Committee executive team and a staff member

By Jay Greaves, VP of Sales Effectiveness, Ceridian

In my home we are HUGE fans of the Olympic Games. It’s always been that way since my childhood and became even more so in 1996 when I served as an envoy for the United States Olympic Team. Beyond enjoying athletic competition, I really enjoy watching examples of all kinds of activities play out in the world. We see examples of commitment, diligence, focus, sportsmanship, competition, humanity, humility, and so many other great traits. And of course, leadership. We see leadership in lots of expected places, from lots of expected individuals, and also in many that are surprising.

Consider the 2016 Olympic Games.

Are we talking about a noun or a verb?

I hear this question often and it’s a great one. Said another way, are we talking about how someone is behaving or their position? During the Olympic Games the easy answer was “both.” If you watched the televised coverage for an hour, you would have seen numerous examples of individuals who are in leadership roles, as well as those not in obvious leadership roles, all acting in ways that provide leadership to others.

What does leadership look like?

Let’s start with some obvious examples.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, was selected by the US Olympic Team to carry the US Flag in the Opening Ceremony. He was literally leading the US Olympic team in a very visible way, having been selected for the humbling role of flag bearer.

Simone Biles, who won five medals (four gold and one bronze), was chosen to carry the US Flag in the Closing Ceremony.

Other athletes who won three or more gold medals include Katie Ledecky (US swimming), Katina Hosszu (Hungary swimming), Jason Kenny (Great Britain cycling), Danuta Kozak (Hungry canoe), Ryan Murphy (US swimming), and Usain Bolt (Jamaica track & field).

And how about some that might be less obvious?

New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin stumbled and fell in a pack of runners in a woman’s 5,000-meter heat. American Abbey D’Agostino went down as well. D’Agostino offered Hamblin a hand and encouraged her to keep going. Then D’Agostino fell again. This time Hamblin stopped to help the American. Both eventually went on to finish.

Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen and her horse Parzival arrived in Rio with high hopes, having won silver and team bronze medals in London in 2012. The unforeseen happened and Parzival fell ill a few days before the competition. Although her horse was subsequently cleared to compete, Cornelissen made the decision not to jeopardize her horse and dedicated partner, and withdrew.

Swimmer Gaurika Singh from Nepal, at 13 years old was the youngest athlete to compete while Mary Hanna, an equestrian from Australia, was the oldest at 61.

US gymnast Gabby Douglas, having been a star in London just four years earlier, had disappointing results in Rio and was bullied in social media. She acknowledged her situation and moved on to cheer for her teammates.

What do we learn about leadership by watching the Olympic Games?

  • Leadership is something that someone does, it doesn’t always come from someone in a formal position of leadership.
  • Some examples of leadership are obvious and easily recognized, while other examples, while less obvious, can be much more impactful.
  • Leadership doesn’t have an age limit.
  • Leading is not the same thing as winning, and often leadership is most visible during extreme challenges and negativity.
  • Sometimes leadership is about leading a team. Sometimes leadership is about leading your country. And occasionally, often when no one is watching, leadership is about leading humanity.

I know what I’ll be doing in two years, and again in four. I’ll be watching Olympic Games, watching for all the fantastic examples of leadership, obvious and subtle, that will again play out.

Jay Greaves is a Strategic HR & OD/OE consultant, Vice President at Ceridian HCM, community volunteer. He lives in Long Beach, California and is passionate about working to make our world a better place.

 

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