Olympic Lessons

HERE COMES DIGGINS…HERE COMES DIGGINS!!”…..and with that call, the US Women’s Cross-Country Ski team notched its first medal in 30 years—and even more shocking, it was gold! In other words, it wasn’t supposed to happen.

Over on the alpine slopes, it was a different story. Mikaela Shiffren was to go for five golds, and Lindsey Vonn was to easily claim the gold in downhill. Neither of these things happened. Such is life; such is sport. That’s the Olympics.

What if Diggins was your project manager? Solid, but never elite. Would you keep her on? Or in that continuous search for better talent, would you let her go? Maybe she’s not an A Player, but she’s certainly a strong B. We need B players. And as you can see, B players can turn in A performances.

What if Vonn was your superintendent? Has always done excellent work, but stumbled on the last few project? You wonder if something is wrong. You know she’s costing you money, so you cut your losses, thinking she just doesn’t have it anymore.

In our Advanced Leadership Program we often have sixteen students. Good class size for maximum interaction and peer coaching. Often we hear a client say I am not sure about this sixteenth guy. I am sure about the fifteen but this one, not so sure. Then the US Mens Curling Team shows up and wins gold. Not supposed to happen. But that questionable sixteenth student, when given some extra attention and training turns into a star. We have seen this many times. People who were perceived as B Minus players emerging as A players. And yes, sometimes those slam dunk students turn out to be pretty mediocre when put under the development spotlight.

The commentators and analysts who study sports were so wrong in their predictions on the performances noted above. How can you be so sure you are right, when you’re not an expert on people? I am often asked for advice on how to handle “people situations.” When I offer some ideas, my clients say, “Hmm… I never thought of that.” This isn’t about me being right; it’s about certainty and range.

It’s helpful to remember that we can never truly be certain when it comes to people. (After all, Lindsey was “supposed to” win the downhill.) But we can be pretty sure. We can make decisions based on track record and history, but we can’t really know for sure. In fact, certainty is a problem because we begin to think we’ve got it figured out, and we make decisions that are not as good as they could be. We don’t allow for other options. We don’t see how a situation might be, only how we want it to be. We might even get complacent.

By range, I mean flexibility of response. Good leaders have good range; great leaders have great range. But increasing your range isn’t easy. You are successful. You know what works and what doesn’t work. Increasing your range might increase your risks as you try things you haven’t tried before. And at first, some of those efforts might not go smoothly, thereby nudging back into your smaller range. Not a good move.

The variability you face on the job today is greater than you have ever faced. Diversity, new means and methods, customer demands, and technology all conspire to challenge you as you have never been challenged before. To succeed into the future, you must increase your range and that means you must prepare yourself. One of the best ways you can prepare is to know that you don’t know. Uncertainty is unsettling. You need people to work through it. This means you need to lead people. How will you do that better tomorrow than you did yesterday? You may be an excellent leader, but what are you doing to remain excellent? Do nothing, and you will slowly lose ground. Do something and it might not go well–at first. But remember these wise words: anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. With effort and time, you almost can’t help but improve! Strive to become a black belt in people.

Every couple of years we watch the Olympics, and we see examples of excellence and despair. Don’t wait for the Olympics. Every single day, there are people working with you and for you who are reaching for excellence. Some days they make it. Some days they don’t. Some days are filled with despair. Don’t be a spectator. Be a leader who helps them excel and supports them when they’re down. You may not win a gold medal, but your team will sprint towards the finish, just like Diggins. Then again, you just may win gold.

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