The Olympian Effort and Our Work

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Some people have no interest in the Olympics – but I’m not one of them. Instead, every four years I am again drawn into the spectacle, captured by the storylines, caught up in the competition for a fortnight. I’m not exactly sure why this is, or why I invest my attention watching sports I know (and care) nothing about. (I can’t imagine planning a normal Saturday afternoon of watching the biathlon, speed-skating, or (yikes!) ice dancing. But with the Olympics, I did all of them.

This week I’ve wondered whether this experience says anything about work – our organizations, our businesses, our careers. Mostly random thoughts, but here are a few of the possible connections:

Tradition– There’s something about the Olympics that connects with my history, the nostalgia of my life. I’ve watched the Olympic Games over many cycles, with experiences tied back to childhood, family, and earlier times. Perhaps more important than nostalgia, traditions also help us with stability – a part of our world that doesn’t change so fast (when virtually everything else around us seems so malleable, transient, ephemeral.)

Principle– The Olympics obviously stand for something (and I don’t mean corruption, or a colossal waste of money).  The Games often transcend most of what is happening at the moment (even the important stuff), focusing the world (briefly) on a higher plane. With few exceptions, the Games go on, and we’re all in. This global effort reminds us a bit with what is at stake: the commonality of our humanity, the value of fairness and a level playing field, the dignity of all people.

Vision– Common to most all of the competitors is a sense of overwhelmingly clear vision and purpose. Across the various events and pursuits, top athletes are singularly focused on their sport, performance, and results. Most have worked toward this moment for most of their lives. They see the desired goal (the Gold!) crystal clear, and they are driven (sometimes madly) toward the dream.

Achievement – Not only do Olympic athletes exhibit an astounding sense of mission and vision, but most are profoundly good at doing – experts at making plans, creating habits, executing routines, and sticking to it to get things done. (Another reminder yet again that it’s not just what you know, but what you do with what you know, that matters most). Perhaps even I – if I learn it well, and then practice it day after day, year after year – could be outstanding, an Olympian, at my chosen craft? Of course talent matters – but not much, without execution.

It may be that these ideas and possible connections between the Olympics and our work in business are obvious and simplistic.  Still, I think there is something to be learned here. Great organizations share the attributes of great individuals, including strong core values; purpose driven mission and vision; and a commitment and talent for execution, for achieving results. Great organizations also stand for higher principles – beyond basic customer service, employment for staff, and the profit motive of the corporation. These organizations provide for their staff and customers a place, a home, an identity – and a sense (at least for a time) of stability, sustainability, legacy.

I probably won’t think much now about the biathlon, figure skating, or the half-pipe. These endeavors are not in my field of view, on my priority list. Still, it’s worth seeing and appreciating (if only every four years) that there are institutions around us which continue to care about and invest in tradition, principle, vision, and achievement.

John

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