What every business leader can learn from Boston’s failed Olympic bid

October 15, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC
Photograph by David Fox — The Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned in the past year? is written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

With the announcement that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) chose Los Angeles as the U.S. city to submit a bid for the 2024 summer games, organizers of Boston’s efforts are analyzing why their dream failed. The analysis offers leadership lessons that go far beyond sports.

It was only this past January that the USOC selected Boston as its choice to bid on the 2024 summer Olympics. In late July, Boston’s mayor announced that the city would not provide the financial guarantees that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demands in its host contract, ending Boston’s potential opportunity to host the Olympic Games and seven months of turmoil that extended throughout Massachusetts. Boston’s refusal to provide financial guarantees in the timeframe demanded by the USOC was the final blow in a process filled with miscalculations and a perceived lack of transparency. The missteps provide some hard-earned lessons that may benefit others trying to develop constituencies for a big vision.

See also: Boston mayor ‘cannot commit’ to Olympics bid

Generate enthusiasm for your goals
The Olympic Games offer the opportunity for incredible excitement, but pose potential enormous risks. For the IOC, slated to make its final 2024 location selection in the summer of 2017, host enthusiasm is a prerequisite to a successful bid. But Boston’s organizers did not seem to lay the necessary groundwork early enough to create excitement and rally the massive community engagement needed to overcome the opposition formed in response to potential risks.

Throughout the process, the proponents of the bid appeared to minimize local concerns and expectations for involvement. The organizers did not seem to appreciate the extent to which every constituency felt that their voice should have been heard long before the detailed and undisclosed bid package was submitted to the USOC. As a result, suspicion was the first reaction, creating a high hurdle for the proponents as plans evolved.

Be prepared to respond to criticism
The initial announcement of the USOC’s choice of Boston as the U.S. bid city was met with a mixture of surprise and skepticism. Doubts were immediately raised as to the fiscal impacts, and insufficient – and changing – information about potential venues frustrated community groups. Contracts with consultants and former government officials, although legitimate, fueled the growing image that the Olympics would be an insiders’ game for Boston’s elite.

Even worse, within weeks of the USOC’s January announcement, a series of blizzards crippled eastern Massachusetts’ public transportation system. Commuters were left stranded and steaming, amid a firestorm of questions asking how a city that cannot get people to work after a snowstorm could effectively manage the massive public transportation requirements of an Olympics. Olympic supporters could only promise a fix, but the specifics behind that promise seemed inadequate.

Pick your spokespersons wisely
The cultural divide between the organizers and the impacted neighborhoods grew wider during a televised debate. One of the two participants representing Boston 2024 was a USOC member who was also the former deputy mayor of New York City and unknown to Bostonians.

On so many levels, the optics were stunning, and Boston 2024 appeared to be tone deaf. Bostonians take pride in their passionate rivalry with New York sports teams, so it is hard to understand how 2024 organizers thought it would be a good idea to choose a former NYC official to tell Massachusetts doubters why their concerns were wrong. During the debate, he emphasized his own credentials – including his personal experience in the bid process and his attendance at numerous Olympic Games. He was dismissive of concerns about potential negative impacts during the years of preparation, and downplayed the traffic challenges that would arise when the games take place. His answers did nothing to instill confidence among already suspicious listeners.

See also: Boston’s tech problem is the same as its Olympics problem

Leaders must constantly anticipate potential pitfalls
Boston’s efforts to compete for the 2024 Olympics failed, in part, because the rigid bid process could not accommodate the city’s understandable need to await detailed studies of the potential impacts before making financial commitments. It failed, as well, because those leading the effort seemed to miscalculate the extent to which constituencies would demand a seat at the table before infrastructure and development decisions were made.

By the end of the process, organizers were unable to undo the perceptions that had taken root. Boston 2024 was pegged as an insider’s game, and the massive effort launched to dispel that perception could not regain the public’s lost confidence in the process. Only a week after the Boston 2024 bid was pulled, the IOC announced that it was awarding the 2022 winter games to Beijing. The IOC apparently is comfortable awarding the Olympic Games to regimes in which criticism is not tolerated. I wonder whether, had the Boston bid remained viable, the IOC would have voted to hold the games in a location where everyone expects to be heard and to have their voices matter.

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