Rio Olympics 2016

Rio 2016: Partnership, Collaboration, Belief – Leadership lessons from Team GB’s Olympics

With Team GB having their most successful games in a century, what leadership lessons can be learned from Rio 2016? In his role as Chairman of The English Institute of Sport, IDG associate John Steele has been in Rio this summer with Team GB and in this blog he provides insight into how and why they were so successful, and what business leaders can learn from that success.

The Rio Olympic games have produced so many golden moments, the overall Team GB performance has to be right up there amongst the nation’s greatest sporting achievements. History tells us that no nation has ever improved their performance after a home games, but this has now happened. Team GB has produced its best ever performance against all the odds.

There will be much analysis of why and how this has occurred, and while the pundits scratch their heads, the high performance system will have turned its focus to Tokyo which is already well advanced in planning. But before then there remains a job half done: we still have the challenge of improving performance at the Paralympics in September. Who can forget the incredible buzz across the nation in London 2012 when our Paralympic athletes showed they were capable of such amazing performances.

Before we turn away from the 2016 Olympic Games, I would like to give a few of my Rio reflections.
Amongst the Team GB family there was a distinctly different vibe to previous games I have been involved with. There are a number of key partners including the National Governing Bodies of Sport, the British Olympic Association, UKSport and the English Institute of Sport. These parties have not always seen eye to eye and there is a history of some petty squabbles about who gets the credit and self promotion. However, the success in Rio has come about as a result of everyone contributing under one banner: we are all Team GB, not always agreeing but united under one very challenging ambitious goal. Long may this culture of challenging cooperation continue. The need for a “burning platform” has always been there and a new equally challenging target should be shaped for the next cycle.

You will also have heard many athletes reference and thank the National Lottery for giving them an opportunity to achieve their dreams. If the coming together and cooperation of sports stakeholders has been an important evolution, then the National Lottery has been the lifeblood and given it the resource and strength needed.

We should also give credit to a number of politicians since the Athens Games, who through tough economic times have kept faith in the investment into UKSport and the high performance system. We have watched other nations suffer from a short -term cycle of “boom -bust” and irregular investment. The success we have just experienced in Rio has been built on the lessons, investment and experience of three previous cycles. A long- term view and consistent resources has been essential.

Images of Team GB from the Rio Olympics

Images of Team GB from the Rio Olympics

During my time at the Games I felt there was something different about the younger athletes we were seeing performing, but for a while struggled to pinpoint what it was. It is only on reflection that I realise that we were watching a new generation of assured athletes whose formative years had not been spent watching and emulating the great British “plucky loser” but had been wrapped in a new environment where British sport was throwing up more and more heroes as role models.

It is only 15 years ago that we never expected to win the Ashes, winning Wimbledon was a far off dream and top three in the Olympics… well you were mad to even mention it! But there is now a new generation of athletes that do not just dream of medal success but expect it. At crucial moments of pressure in the cauldron of competition in Rio our athletes delivered with assured precision based not on doubt or previous experience of “nearly but not quite”, but on belief in their and Team GBs ability.

So what of the future? Of course NGBs Performance Directors and coaches will now be moving the next cohort of athletes up the talent pathway and building on the experience of Rio. We witnessed a large number of fourth places, many of which were not athletes just falling short but athletes on the ascendancy and reaching a level above their ranking.

The success of Rio also throws up some challenges for investment in the next cycle, and despite all the achievements we must collectively stick to the uncompromising approach that has got us to where we are. Our athletes have a right to compete on a level playing field against other athletes, and the war on drug cheats must continue.

But there is no automatic right to funding. That has to be earned and as collective success increases the competition for funding grows. The road to Rio was paved with many hard, courageous decisions that were not popular, but made in the interests of the overall objective.

As a leader within the high performance sport system, Rio has reminded me of a few essential elements of success in leadership:

  • The need for leaders to collaborate and understand what partnership really means.
  • Not being preoccupied with who gets the credit.
  • Creating a “burning platform” that drives activity and suppresses complacency.
  • Create a culture of belief, and do not let past achievements or failures dictate future potential.
  • Do not let short term problems knock long term strategy off course. Resilient people in a resilient system.
  • Do not let a desire to please everyone or be popular compromise or dilute the focus on your objective.

Next stop Rio for the Paralympics where 121 medals would beat the London haul. Many wouldn’t have given Team GB any chance of improving on the 65 in London, so who knows where our Paralympic Athletes might take us in September. Watch this space…

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