Leadership Lessons From High Performance Sport

In the first of a short series of blogs written exclusively for IDG, John Steele, Chairman of the English Institute of Sport, looks at leadership challenges within sport in 2016, an Olympic year. He explores how similar challenges are faced in other sectors during a time of intense change and refers to lessons he learned during his time as an Army Officer.

Cheering in the house was the reaction to the chancellors’ recent announcement that the government would look to continue its strong financial support of Olympic and Paralympic sport through the Rio and Tokyo Games.

The glow of London 2012 has inevitably dimmed a little, but a recent government survey declared that when asked for the three things that made the Great British public most proud they said the NHS, the armed forces and Team GB. No surprise then that the smart public investment remains firmly behind the voter’s passion for Olympic and Paralympic sport. But how easy will it be for our athletes, coaches and sports leaders to maintain the unprecedented success of the last two Olympic cycles in Beijing and London?

In a relatively short period in Olympic terms, Team GB has rocketed from a lowly 36th in the medal table in Atlanta 1996 to top 3 in 2012. However the backdrop in wider sport is rapidly changing and there are some intense challenges to be overcome. Doping scandals, corruption and a growing number of reasons for public confidence to be shaken.

This is the context in which our sports leaders must create unwavering laser-like focus on the goal of improved performance in Rio 2016, and this challenge translates easily into many leadership scenarios in other fields. Change is ever present in our modern world, its rapid, unrelenting pace aided and boosted by digital media and advancing technology. Todays leader is surrounded by a changing landscape, morphing rules and a kaleidoscope of missions and expectations.

As chairman of the English Institute of Sport – the “team behind the team” – I am one of the leaders striving to ensure that our athletes have the right support to reach their potential in Rio. Our remit covers a variety of performance areas including all the essential “ologies” plus talent, research and innovation to name but a few, but in Olympic year it’s about one thing… performance success!

There is an unquestionable need to stay focused on what makes a difference and I am reminded of some of the basic principles that I, and fellow trainee officer cadets were taught at Sandhurst Military Academy. “Maintainance of the Aim” was one of the basic principles of war,that captured the absolute need, through the fog of conflict and the inevitable unexpected events that occur, to keep decisions and resources sharply focused on the main objective.

Leaders are briefed clearly on their “main effort”, the goal that despite all the obstacles and distractions must take priority of resource. A simple concept,but one that is so often lost when opportunity and challenge present themselves. If they don’t contribute to achieving the main aim then ignore them and move on. But can this tunnel vision focus be the enemy of innovation and opportunism?

For me, there is always room for innovation and adaptation of approach, but it has to contribute to the main effort or leaders and teams quickly lose clarity of purpose and are less likely to deliver on plan. Too often we layer idea on objective on innovation without pruning or streamlining. No time to reflect, review or take stock, just a race to throw more at any problem, and potentially a dilution of excellence. But as leaders how good are we at streamlining our resources and team energy, doing less for greater impact?

As often as we add new initiatives and ideas we must reflect on what has had its time and needs to cease. In the run up to Rio there will be plenty of distraction and noise from the broader sporting landscape, quick fix ideas, demand for last minute alterations as pressure mounts; and an absolute need for leaders to keep focused in change and stay resolutely fixed on the main effort… medal success.

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