After the Olympic and Paralympic excitement, there’ll be the usual wave of stories about how we are all inspired by Olympians’ achievements, how you can fulfil your dreams if you only try hard enough, and so on. I’ve seen plenty of inspiring talks, both the sporting type and others. It’s always great fun, and I’ve usually taken something valuable from it. But, in my view, the inspiration from sport is not the simple lesson most often cited by the winners themselves in their moments of joy. The lesson for people in business is quite the opposite, as I wrote when the Olympics were held in London in 2012, after seeing Sir Matthew Pinsent speak to a group of senior marketers. I’m reposting it post-Tokyo as it seems just as relevant now as it did then. Here it is:


Sir Matthew Pinsent is a very big man, with a big voice, and when he walked up and down the stage at the Marketing Society conference, describing how his crew worked in the Athens Olympics, the whole room listened in awed silence before erupting into rapturous applause. I felt inspired. Afterwards, I wasn’t sure what I’d taken away from it – but we all agreed he was a brilliant speaker and we’d loved it.

There’s a whole industry built on having sporting achievers speak to business people, and the received wisdom is that we can learn from them. Matthew talked about teamwork: when at last they were racing for gold at Athens, it was time to know your job and focus totally on doing that well, and trust that the others in the boat will do theirs. But is that a useful analogy for business? It could just as easily translate as, “Not my job mate”.

I recently heard another Olympian, Steve Williams, describe his odyssey to win gold at Athens, enduring five, or was it six, hours training a day, and doing this six, or was it seven, days a week for four years, preparing for one race. Also on the stage was former Olympic swimmer and Gladiator Sharron Davies, and I asked her what lessons there might be for a business person, since we can’t dedicate ourselves to preparing for one thing like that. Her answer? We all spent all our teenage years as well, so really it’s more like twelve or fifteen years’ dedicated training. Ok, thanks Sharron. So that seems even less relevant to business doesn’t it?

Athletes talk a lot about personal commitment and hard work, especially those in swimming and track events where achievements are individual. That leaves me confused about whether sport as inspiration for business is meant to inspire me, as an individual, to compete and win – against whom? My peers, for personal recognition and advancement? Surely not. Perhaps it means each of us as representatives of our organisation, then, to help our business or enterprise to succeed, to win? But business isn’t a race, or a team competition – it’s an obstacle course on a rollercoaster, with obscure and new rivals arriving all the time, and no finish line.

In swimming, in rowing, in fact in any sport, you all know the rules in advance. You can work hard but you can’t change the rules – and if you try to find some wily wheeze to change the situation to your advantage, you risk disqualification. In business, by contrast, people who accept the status quo are LOSERS! Winners in business change the rules to their own advantage – they spot opportunities that are not yet apparent to others, make things no one else has made, find new suppliers or manufacturing processes to gain cost advantages, lobby for different laws, get creative with tax and domicile, even. It’s the job of a business leader to create change. They definitely, totally, should not seek to conform to the “rules” of the category in which they operate.

So we’re back to personal dedication and commitment? Actually I think there is something more here, beyond the hard work, commitment and belief. It’s not that we are in the presence of genius which might rub off on us. It’s that they had a clear goal, a stated purpose, and they focused on it single-mindedly, and worked extremely hard, enduring setbacks, injuries, moments of self-doubt, but never giving up.

Lucky them, of course. For all the horror of having to get up at six every morning to go rowing in a gale, and then lifting weights in the gym for two hours, followed by whatever the latest training guru has thought up, their job is simple – not like mine or yours, right? It’s so clear what they have to do, whereas business is complicated. Maybe so, but the inspiration I take from Matthew, Steve, Sharron and the rest, is that you first need that clarity of purpose. Why are you at work, and what does success look like?

There’s a personal answer, and there should also be an answer you share with your work colleagues. Like Matthew Pinsent in his crew, we can all focus on our roles, and leave the others to do theirs, if we are all clear on the collective purpose, and we all care enough about achieving it to intervene – constructively, helpfully, and at the right time – so we can all be better together. The ethos of the GB rowing squad reflects this focus on purpose. Their touchstone and mantra is, Will it make the boat go faster? Everyone in the squad can question and challenge everyone else’s actions, if they might not be in the best interests of the team.

Sports team managers like Dave Brailsford, who leads the Sky and GB cycling teams, know there are no short cuts or magic bullets. He appointed a director of marginal gains whose job is to look at every aspect of preparation and training, and find all the tiny tweaks that can be made, which all add up to faster races.

I think the real reason we love hearing from sports people is that we are inspired by personal fulfilment. What we see when Sir Matthew, or Steve Richards, or any one of them speak, is a fulfilled person, someone with a clear purpose on which they have delivered. It is exciting and refreshing to be in the company of someone who has achieved something great, whether climbing a mountain, winning an Olympic medal , starting a charity that changes lives, or growing a successful business. It inspires me to revisit and commit to my purpose with renewed energy. With sports people there’s the added bonus that, compared with their schedules, my day at work is a walk in the park. Lovely.

Comment | August 2021