For as long as I can remember, I’ve been inspired by sports and dreamed of one day participating in competitions. From practicing the high jump at age 9 on a playground in Nicaragua by jumping over a tree branch to winning my group in the decathlon high jump competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, that 16-year journey helped form so many qualities that are intrinsic to how I approach any challenge in life.
I have constantly found that my athletic experience informs my leadership. Winning, losing, discipline, goals, character, strategy, focus, disappointment, set-backs, victories, teamwork, injuries, resource allocation, time-management, energy management—they’re all a part of leading an organization.
More specifically, my chosen event of the decathlon provided invaluable training for my role as a general manager. The decathlon is a combination of ten events spread over a two-day period. As such, you can’t get too down on yourself when you have a bad performance in one event, because the next one is coming right up.
You don’t want to take that negativity with you or you could replicate the bad performance. You have to learn from your mistake and move on to the next event with a positive outlook and confidence that you’ll do your best. There is no time for unnecessary pouting or feeling sorry for yourself!
Organizational leadership is very similar. You may have a loss one day, but you need to bounce back quickly to get out of that rut. On the other hand, you also can’t celebrate a big victory too long or you risk losing focus for the next challenge. You have to maintain an even keel when you go through the highs and lows and remember that you are probably not as good as your victories indicate nor as bad as your losses reflect either.
Also, the very nature of the decathlon is that you have to be great at being a generalist across many events. The best decathletes in the world are usually at the low end of world class for the individual events, but it’s extremely rare for a decathlete to compete against an event specialist. The CEO position is very much like that.
I’m not an expert in finance, accounting, technology, human resources, organizational development, or land and building development. But, I do need to have a level competence in each of those areas and excel in some so I can develop a point of view about how it all works together to achieve the greatest result.
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Another huge lesson from decathlon training has been learning how to compete when you are tired or when circumstance are not ideal, but top performance is still required. By the tenth event you are exhausted physically and emotionally. But despite that… you still have to perform.
In the same way, leadership demands and challenges don’t always come your way when you want them to or when you are optimally prepared for them. You have to learn how to perform when hard circumstances come your way, whenever they come. Perseverance, unbridled optimism and refusing to see yourself as a victim are critical to success in athletics at a world class level. It’s no different in leadership!