Hitting the target: Leadership Lessons from Team GB


By Jonathan Males

The 2016 Paralympic Games are well underway, providing a beautiful follow-on from Team GB’s Olympic success earlier in the summer. Performance1 is proud to have played a role – William is the sport psychologist with the Para-Rowing team, and Jonathan is currently in Rio with the Paralympic Inspiration Programme, helping the next generation of athletes and coaches prepare for Tokyo 2020.

What can we learn from Britain’s sporting success in Rio? We’ve worked behind the scenes for more than 20 years with Team GB, UK Sport and a host of Olympic and Paralympic sports including canoeing, hockey, rowing and wheelchair basketball so we have a pretty good idea of the approach.  Here are the insights we think you can most readily apply to leadership and the world of work:

Be clear about your strategy and don’t try to please everyone

UK Sport’s strategy is clearly focused on success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  This approach means that some sports like basketball and volleyball don’t receive elite level funding because they are unlikely to win medals, despite their popularity and high levels of participation.  Some see this approach as ruthless or short-sighted, but the evidence is that it’s contributed to GB winning more medals at each of the last five Olympic Games, and winning more medals in more events than any other country in Rio.

The implication for leaders?  You need to be clear about your strategy and realize that it won’t please everyone. There will be critics, and some may have valid alternatives.  But you need to have the courage to commit, as well as staying honest about the evidence for your strategy’s success.

Here’s a view from outside Britain:


Think about how you will get the results you want

Some argue that it’s just about the money.  It’s true that Team GB is well funded, and one estimate put the cost of each British Olympic medal at £5.5 million.  That’s more than Canada (£3 million per medal) but much less than Australia (about £9 million per medal).  It’s important to understand how the money is allocated. UK Sport invests money from the National Lottery on the basis of its Mission programme, which Jonathan helped develop and implement back in 2005. This holistic framework makes sure the sports focus on long-term athlete development, on ensuring there are robust systems, and on developing a performance-focused climate. Funding is tied to a sport’s ability to demonstrate that it has the right processes in place to deliver the outcomes it wants.

The implication for leaders? You’ve got to think holistically about your enterprise. “Soft stuff” like culture, stakeholder relationships and attitude are just as important as having the right hardware.  Be clear about the ‘how’, not just the ‘what.’

Here’s a great summary of what else beside money makes the difference for Team GB:


Step back and ask “what else?”

Everything we’ve described here about Britain’s sporting success is bounded by an assumption that national sporting success is important.  Many don’t agree with this assumption and criticize the cost of the Olympics and Paralympics, especially for cities like Rio that suffer from huge social inequalities and economic recession.  It’s certainly an uncomfortable juxtaposition to consider Rio’s sprawling favelas as the backdrop to people obsessing over lap times around an athletic track.  We’ll leave it to you to form your own view on the merit of elite sport, and focus instead on the strategic principle of stepping back and asking the question  ‘what else could we do, and are we in the right business?’ This is perhaps the most important leadership insight of all, because without it you may find yourself running very fast but in the wrong direction.

Here’s one answer from Australia, considering investment in arts and literature instead of sport:


We like to bring fresh insights into our work with leaders, to challenge you to think differently about yourself, your performance, and your business. We coach individuals and teams and we’d love to hear from you.

Contact us:

Office: +44 (0)20 8216 3775
Jonathan: +44 (0)7711 068874
William: +44 (0)7962 243644

Email: info@performance-1.co.uk


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