Leadership lessons from the Olympics

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 14:  Ashley Caldwell of the United States competes in the Freestyle Skiing Ladies' Aerials Qualification on day seven of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Ashley Caldwell of the United States competes in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Like many of you, I love watching the Winter Olympics for both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Beyond witnessing these incredible athletes perform super-human feats, I also consider the whole event a metaphor for leading in government.

For roughly two weeks, athletes who often toil in anonymity are thrust into a very public spotlight where every action, every response to their win or loss, is endlessly analyzed. If you have a bad day, you’re considered a disappointment. If you handle any outcome — good or bad — less than graciously, you may be labeled arrogant, self-centered or even a poor representative of your country.

Looking at the Olympics through this leadership lens, I see the connection with federal managers.

Does a federal leader rise to the occasion and help employees overcome the obstacles? Does the leader complain and make excuses that leave everyone feeling defeated? Does a federal leader use mistakes as an opportunity to explore lessons learned and to continuously improve? Does a leader simply look to blame others when things don’t go as planned?

A federal leader’s actions or inaction will create a reputation — one likely to affect employees’ perceptions and, more importantly, their performance.

Here are a few thoughts for federal leaders to consider, based on some of the most interesting Olympic stories so far.

Relish, don’t stress, the big moment. Snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg went from obscure U.S. Olympic athlete to the first gold-medal winner of the games by embracing his opportunity. Others either just fell short or became overwhelmed at the prospect of winning or losing a medal, and failed to perform their best. Your employees will take their cues from your behavior. When you face a big moment, expressing a confident, can-do attitude will help you perform at your very best and help your team do the same.

Failures are an opportunity to improve, not an opportunity to make excuses. I try to avoid judging athletes, especially those who are interviewed immediately after a crushing loss. Still, I couldn't help but be disappointed by downhill skier Bode Miller’s reaction to his eighth-place finish. Even though he set the pace for all skiers during training runs leading to the main event, he blamed cloudy skies for his defeat (the same cloudy skies the other skiers saw that day). The best athletes, and the best leaders, don’t make excuses. They analyze their failures to pinpoint what they can versus what they cannot control and work to improve.

Give yourself and others a second chance to succeed. Local figure skater Ashley Wagner was in the headlines a few weeks ago when she made the Olympic team despite coming in fourth place during our national competition. She further raised eyebrows by altering her preparation and routines before the biggest event of her life. With a history of coming up short, she made the most of her second chance and skated wonderfully to help the U.S. skating team win a bronze medal in the first-ever team figure skating competition. Her experience reminds us that we all deserve a second chance, and we must work to make the most of new opportunities.

You can break through any barrier to achieve your goals. Bobsledder Johnny Quinn became famous for literally breaking barriers — in his case a locked hotel bathroom door. While the story has largely garnered amusing reactions, it’s a great metaphor. With no cell phone and no assistance coming after yelling for help, Quinn didn’t wait idly by for someone else to solve his problem. He took matters into his own hands. The barriers federal leaders break may not be physical ones, but you can win over employees by breaking through process, administrative or other barriers that hold them back. The vast majority of federal employees are looking to continuously improve, and helping them along the way is a major motivator.

Don’t forget the personal touch. Surprisingly Shaun White failed to medal in the snowboarding half-pipe, an event he has won during the past two Olympics and likely thought he had in his pocket for a repeat performance. Think about White if you have a bad day in the spotlight and don't meet the expectations of those who take their cues from you as a leader. Take note of the leadership he displayed in the face of personal and public Olympic disappointment, one witnessed by the entire world, fans and foes. It's natural to become withdrawn and maybe even a little surly in response to failure. And who would have blamed him for stomping off in disgust, listing a litany of excuses like many in his place were doing? But instead, White vaulted the barriers separating him from the event spectators and gave two young cancer patients high-fives and hugs. “The Flying Tomato's” behavior in the face of failure puts him on my list of top Olympic leadership examples, one for athletes and federal leaders alike to emulate.

What are your favorite stories and leadership lessons from the Sochi Olympics? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Also on On Leadership

The resume that makes for a top executive