At a time when we need heroes, Britain’s Olympians have delivered. Names like Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Bradley Wiggins have become synonymous with almost superhuman achievement and superlative success.
One of the happiest things about their memorable performances, though, is that those extraordinary people wearing the gold medals are the first to give full credit to others for their achievement.
Unlike (dare I say it) the great majority of today’s footballing greats, Team GB’s big names have behaved with decency and humility, acknowledging the roles of their parents, friends, coaches, supporters and others who have helped them on the road to victory.
The Olympics is not simply a process of discovering which human being on the planet has been naturally endowed with the ability to run the fastest, jump the highest or vault the most gracefully – or even who has trained the hardest or wants the medal most. In this hyper-competitive arena, it is the combination of natural talent, internal motivation and external support that adds up to a champion.
Training these athletes is a science that requires experience and precision. No human being, not even an Olympian, can be constantly at his or her peak, so it’s important that the arc of progress reaches its zenith with the big race. Injuries have to be nursed, and physical and mental weaknesses transformed into strengths.
In all this, the role of the coach is vital, and coaches are drawn from those who have themselves competed in the past. We would find it odd if this was not the case; if, for example, an inspirational maths teacher was given the job of nurturing a gymnast. And yet, in business, it is sometimes assumed that good managers can get results regardless of the industry they find themselves in.
It’s true that there are such things as transferrable skills, and that great leaders can and often do make the transition from one industry to another. But such cases are the exception rather than the rule.
Evidence that deep and specialist knowledge produces the best results comes from a study by Cass Business School, which concludes ‘the most successful team leaders in Formula 1 motor racing are more likely to have started their careers as drivers and mechanics, compared with leaders who were principally managers or engineers with degrees. There is a notable association between driving and later success as a leader.’
In business, industry and product knowledge improves decision-making, gives birth to winning ideas, and commands the respect of employees. Despite the importance of generic managerial skills, we should never forget that the best leaders understand their business like no-one else.