Citius, Altius, Fortius? What is a true measure of success...?
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
As Olympic fever draws to a close, there is so much to reflect on from these particular Games: the year’s delay, the lack of crowds, the interrupted training, but there’s so much more than Covid disruption. We have seen some stand out examples of success in people’s behaviour and leadership, and it’s not all about being faster, higher, stronger. True leadership is not confined to those in charge, and success not confined to ‘winners’. As a client said to me once, ‘leadership is not a role, it is a behaviour’. Whether gold, silver, bronze or withdrawn from competition, we have witnessed the strength of humility of leadership, of leading with compassion, the power of taking a stance for equality, and how openness about subjects such as mental health, sexual objectification and tacit racism can produce the strongest leaders of all.
In the build-up to the Games we experienced an emotional Euro football tournament in England, and whilst we didn’t walk away with the ‘prize’ we came away with immense pride in a team that held themselves with courage and dignity throughout. We witnessed a stand against hate every time the team ‘took the knee’, and saw how a nation reacted to support Saka, Sancho and Rashford when they became targets of abuse after missing a penalty. The BBC reported on how an act of hate led to an outpouring of love, and raised £40000 for a food bank charity championed by Marcus Rashford who demonstrates leadership through compassion for others.
At the Games themselves, we saw a 27 year old man achieve his dream following 14 years of highs and lows. From being thrust onto the world stage at the age of 13, losing his father, discovering his sexuality under the harsh glare of the public eye and then becoming a father himself, Tom Daly’s tears told the story of what he has overcome. Bullied for his achievements, he had to overcome grief, PTSD and break the paralysis of fear he started to feel at the edge of the diving board. He had his moment this year, but it wasn’t all about the Gold. As one of the first openly gay world class athletes and someone who came to the world stage as a child, it was about leadership through overcoming adversity, and leading by example for millions of young teens trying to find their place in the world.
Another young athlete who showed similar fortitude as she weathered her own storm is Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast the world has ever seen. Some of her moves are so complex the scoring system isn’t yet able to assess them. At the age of 24 she has opened up about living in foster care and the years in which she was sexually abused by her team doctor under the tacit knowledge of ‘USA Gymnastics’. She competes not for them, but for women of colour, for other assault survivors, for those who have experienced the suicide ideation and mental health trauma that she has. Her bravery in stepping aside from the team has shone a vital spotlight on mental health, just as Naomi Osaka did when pulling out of the French Open last month. They have both shown the thousands that idolise them that it’s ok not to be ok, and it has to be spoken. They show the power of vulnerability in leadership, in standing up for what’s right, the strength is takes to know when to step back for the greater good, and when to lean in. Oh - and in the middle of the maelstrom Simone managed to bag herself a bronze on the most difficult apparatus of all, and she did it for joy and her love of the sport .
This emotional and ethical leadership is slowly beginning to permeate at an organisational level, although there is still such a long way to go. The German gymnastics federation took a stance against sexualisation in sport by enabling their Olympic female gymnasts to eschew leotards for unitards, whilst elsewhere the Norwegian Handball team were being fined by the European federation for refusing to wear bikini bottoms instead of shorts. Whilst there may be a growing trend towards acceptability, tolerance and understanding of what matters in sport, for many it is still like walking through treacle. For those that make the stand, herein lies true leadership and success.
There are so many more examples from throughout the summer, and this brilliant article expands gloriously on the themes of ‘love, courage and solidarity’ in sport. All of these incredible individuals have been leaders in a way above and beyond their labelled ‘talent’. So consider again, what defines success? Is the achievement of the medal? Is it simply faster, higher, stronger? Or is it inspiring nations through championing social justice, supporting mental health, standing up with Pride, showing strength in vulnerability, defending the right not to be sexually objectified, tackling racism and breaking through societal expectations?
We’ll leave that one with you...
Daly/Biles photos reproduced from Guardian.com under fair use policy. No copyright infringement intended.