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How SMEs can harness the Olympic spirit


So, Australian athletes won far fewer medals (35, for those who missed it) than we would have liked, or expected, at the London Olympic Games. But you know what, there were still some outstanding lessons from humankind’s greatest sporting event. If we in business learn them well, we all could be gold medalists in our own domain.

To understand why, let’s consider the two types of leadership in business. The first is the “Warrior” kind, suited to static, less complex older style environments. He is contrasted by the “Hero,” who is more suited for highly complex rapidly changing environments.

The Warrior utilizes control and power in his quest to maintain the status quo. Such leaders focus on structure, respect hierarchy and build exclusive ties. Classic soldiers, they obey rules and orders.

The Hero, on the other hand, is an innovator. Leaders of this type inspire people and build inclusive relationships. They take a long-term view and are unafraid to challenge the status quo.

Set Olympic-sized goals

So how do they relate to the Olympics?

The Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee, offer great examples of both the old and new styles of leadership.

There is very little competition to the Olympic Games, which are in a class of its own. Yet, the games are all about competing, as made clear by its motto – faster, higher, stronger. At the Olympics, we see perfect conditions for both heroes and warriors.

The Warrior aspects of the Olympics include tight control on use of the Olympic brand and logos, ruthless sponsorship policies, even manipulation of host cities and countries to make them pay dearly for the privilege. Athletes aren’t exempt either. Historically, they have been amateurs who participate for the love of sport, nothing more. Add to it a growing hunger for the tourist dollar and the IOC is able to push costs back on to stakeholders who are more than willing to fight for the right to be part of the Olympic juggernaut.

You might already be thinking what if you could emulate some of these things in business. Even if they never attain them, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) could set these goals.

Strong lessons can also be learnt from the Heroes, epitomised in the Olympics by the athletes and volunteers.

The athletes work tirelessly for years before they come into the Olympics, and they do it simply for the love and glory of it. They are watched and supported by their families, nations, coaches and the world at large. For this honour they are prepared to apply military discipline around training schedules and dietary regimes, and single-mindedness in the pursuit. Eventually, some among them are rewarded with the opportunity of being part of the greatest show on earth and fulfilling their dreams.

As to the volunteers, they show us the goodness of the human spirit, our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and contribute to a larger cause. So much so, they go way beyond the call of duty.

An SME leader can, similarly, demonstrate vision and purpose to capture peoples’ hearts and minds. If he can inspire his teams to demonstrate the volunteers’ spirit, and customer-centred approach, it could be invaluable to his business.

SME leaders should also be mindful of some larger lessons from the Olympic Games.

We don’t all work only for money. The desire to make a difference and win recognition are far bigger. So are job satisfaction and the spirit of being part of a team.

Figure out ways to weave these human aspirations into your organisation’s culture. If you do so successfully, you and your staff will be unstoppable.

Margot Cairnes is the author of Approaching the Corporate Heart: Breaking Through toNew Horizons of Personal and Professional Success. She has worked with corporate leaders to create humanly enhancing environments.

Photo credit: David Shankbone/Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0