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Leadership Lessons from the Winter Olympics 2018: Part 1 – Getting the Balance Right


Leadership Lessons from the Winter Olympics 2018: Part 1 – Getting the Balance Right

by John Steele

Chairman of the English Institute of Sport, Director of Loughborough Sport and IDG Associate

For our latest generation of winter olympians the long wait is over. They are installed in the athletes’ village in Pyeongchang, South Korea and after years of preparation and training they now get to judge themselves against the worlds’ best.

Last week we attended the flag raising ceremony in the athlete village which officially recognised TeamGBs attendance and commitment to the Games; however athletes, coaches and staff have been training and getting used to conditions in holding camps for some time. The opening ceremony has announced to the world that the country is ready to host a fantastic games.

I have attended the last two Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi, which were both successful in their own way, but this Games feels different. No longer do we hear the rhetoric that Great Britain can rarely succeed in winter sports due to climate, geography, culture or funding. Conventional wisdom of what is or isn’t possible has been disregarded. How often does history or self-appointed experts dictate what is and is not possible.

Now there is ambition and expectation around a number of sports and disciplines where we have not traditionally prospered. Regardless of ambition this is going to be a tough Olympic Games in terms of conditions and competition.

UK Sport have set a medal target range of 4-8, and 5 would deliver the best winter Games yet. Medal hopes rest with Curling, Short Track Speed Skating, Bob Skeleton, Bobsleigh, Ski Cross, Alpine Ski Slalom, and Snow Boarding. We have been reminded of the harsh reality of the dangers of many winter sports with the news two days ago that, having fractured her wrist in training last week, snowboard medal hopeful Katie Ormerod has been withdrawn after suffering a severely fractured right heel.

Having watched the first days snow boarding competition yesterday the unforgiving nature of this sport was very apparent. This is hard sport in tough conditions, where the need for physical and mental resilience is a given. I sometimes hear people referring to resilience when I believe they really mean mental toughness.

All these athletes require mental fitness to dedicate themselves to training and withstand the pressures of competition. It is the individuals that are truly resilient who pick themselves up from inevitable setbacks during competition, and also longer term challenges between Olympic cycles, to become Olympic champions. But is this an isolated and extreme experience that is so extraordinary that it holds no lessons for the rest of us?

I believe sport reflects society and to a certain extent society reflects broader sport. Today’s leaders must understand how they manage themselves and those in their teams to navigate an increasingly difficult way of life. No longer does the term “work life balance” apply. To divide the two may be desirable, but with the IT world we live in it is impossible. Work and life are one and it is simply life balance that should be our aim. In the organisations I work with I can see more and more corporate fatigue brought about by growing workloads and uncontrolled social media, developing into emotional well being and mental health issues.

The days of people development being focused on improving management systems and process effectiveness are gone. Now leaders must prioritise looking after their people as good coaches look after their athletes, ensuring a balance of demands and support, and developing the all important resilience.

To develop resilient people and a caring culture is a balancing act like no other. Too much of either can render both ineffective. As recent history shows us sport has not always got this right, but does understand the need to change.

The frozen slopes of South Korea will test our balance in more ways than one.

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