Why Business Has Little To Learn From The Winter Olympics

Feb 25 2014, 5:32am CST | by

Even more so than its summer equivalent, the Winter Olympics – just finished for another four years – offers television sports fans the chance to become obsessive followers of activities they previously barely knew existed. For just a few days, athletes who with few exceptions normally labour well away from the limelight can show the rest of us what talent, nerve and, above all, dedication can achieve. They are held up as shining examples of hard work, resilience and other old-fashioned values so beloved of parents, teachers and the like. The implication is clear: their success is somehow more pure than that enjoyed by the stars of the sports – football (NFL and soccer), baseball, basketball, to name a few – that routinely attract global support and hence huge financial rewards.

But is it really? Olympic medallists are now rather like Hollywood’s Oscar winners in their insistence on thanking their “teams” of coaches, technicians and other providers of specialist services. In the end, though, except for those who really are in teams, it is just them on the podium. And, to a large extent, it is just them who are remembered.

This is quite a contrast with modern business. Sure, we love the tale of the entrepreneur battling against the odds to achieve their dream of bringing their invention to market. Such is the romance of the idea that we often forgive these Olympian-type heroes their foibles. After all, it is widely accepted that only a maverick like the late Steve Jobs could have come up with the iPhone and the string of other products with which Apple has showered us. However, contrary to the public’s impression, the most successful of these visionaries generally work with steadier types. Indeed, venture capitalists often insist on introducing sound business skills to leadership teams before offering backing.

But most businesses are not like that. For a start, they tend to have been around for a while and are quite large. They are there for the long haul, not just involved in a campaign to achieve a certain goal. As such , they require people who are flexible rather than single-minded, prepared to change their approach rather than determined to press on against the odds and interested in a variety of different things, most particularly how people work.

The problem is that Olympic champions are just too extraordinary to be role models for most people. The disconnect between elite athletes and ordinary people is made all the greater by the fact that in recent years the funding provided to the best prospects means that they effectively become full-time sports people. The flipside of all that hard work and dedication is sacrifice – of family life, of friends and of just normal things. Modern organizations are busy making themselves more receptive to the needs and outside interests of their employees, some of whom may want to become pioneering mountaineers or concert pianists – or even successful athletes. But in doing so they need to be careful not to send a signal that only those who are completely dedicated to the cause will succeed. You cannot claim to be serious about “work-life balance” and at the same time imply that going to work is like following a training schedule to run a marathon.

The person who follows such a regime might climb a few rungs on the corporate ladder but they are less likely to succeed in the wider world of business, for the simple reason that business is so complex and unpredictable that leaders need to be agile and responsive rather than just dedicated.

Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last, is just one of many corporate speakers making the point that the best leaders are increasingly looking at how they can support and encourage their colleagues. This is related to the servant leader model, about which I wrote in an earlier post. In particular, it is an example of the growing trend for management thinkers to take inspiration from the military. (Leaders Eat Last is a reference to an explanation given to Sinek for the US Marines’ outstanding reputation. By eating after their men, the officers were showing that they did not see themselves as more important than those they were leading, he was told.)

So, by all means enjoy the Olympics and relish the opportunity to marvel at strange sports – what is it about us Brits that we specialise in sending young women headfirst down icy tracks on tiny sheets of plastic? But be wary of trying to apply much of this to the workplace. For that, as for much of life, team sports are the thing. Look at how the best teams share success, with the goal scorers not singled out. Indeed, thanks to the modern technology used in television graphics and statistics, armchair pundits and not just the real experts can see how hard those who used to be regarded as the journeymen players work for their teams. Soccer, for example, has even borrowed from US sports to credit players with “assists” when they help colleagues to score.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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