What the Rio Olympics Teaches Business Leaders

Olympics - Previews - Day - 5
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 31: The beach volley ball venue is seen ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games on July 31, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath — Getty Images

Cathy Engelbert is CEO of Deloitte LLP.

As the opening ceremony for the 31st Olympic Games kicked off in Rio de Janeiro Friday night, 207 nations joined to celebrate this pinnacle of sportsmanship, dedication, and talent. More than 10,000 athletes will bring their unique stories of personal trial and overcoming odds to live their passion.

From my early days of playing 2:2 in basketball against my three older brothers, to my years playing Division 1 college basketball and lacrosse, sports have played a big role in my leadership development. I can’t help but feel the excitement of the international community coming together to honor athleticism and achievement.

The Games also remind me that business leaders and athletes share similar qualities. They must know when to lead, know when to follow, know when to pass to their teammates, and know when to ask for help, to name a few. I’ll watch as these same themes unfold in Rio, and celebrate their impact in our workplace, as we watch moments of brilliance in the performance of these athletes.

Here are some ways professionals can channel their inner Olympian:

Find a coach that invests in your growth. Behind every great athlete is a masterful coach that inspires the athlete to evolve into the strongest performer they can become. Seek out a personal coach or mentor in the workplace. He/she should push you when you need it by encouraging and motivating you. Don’t be afraid of their honesty. And most importantly, pay it forward and become a coach to someone else. Take Gerek Meinhardt, a Deloitte advisory consultant who is also an American fencer competing in Rio. Gerek’s 17-year relationship with his coach helped pave his Olympic journey. And true to the nature of paying it forward, Gerek’s coach is a former fencing Olympian who is now helping Gerek attain his Olympic dreams.

Measure success in your own achievement, not against others. You never know where your career will take you. A competitor in the market could suddenly become an unlikely partner. Be flexible, keep your slate clean, and stay open to unlikely collaborations.

Keri Walsh Jenner and April Ross were on opposing American women’s beach volleyball teams, competing against each other in the London 2012 Olympic finals. After Keri and her partner clinched the gold, Keri immediately asked April to team up in Rio and aim for the gold together. Both of their partners were retiring, opening up chances for an unlikely partnership that inspired their Rio journey together.

Persevere through struggle and setbacks. Late nights, early mornings and personal sacrifice are a necessary part of every Olympic success story. Athletes have to overcome a daily struggle to avoid feelings of self-doubt when facing temporary setbacks.

The same is true in the workplace. If you experience a setback, shift your mindset and view it as an opportunity for growth. Think of swimmer Missy Franklin. She won four gold medals at the London 2012 Olympics. For Missy, setbacks came in the form of back spasms in 2014. The struggle from this experience forced her to train even harder. Four years after winning Olympic gold, Missy will compete in Rio and seek to defend her swimming titles.

Take good care of yourself. As we train our professionals to channel their inner Olympian, it’s important to focus on overall well-being. Incorporating exercise, breaks, and mindfulness into daily practice has tremendous benefits. Whenever I speak to audiences inside or even outside of Deloitte, I always encourage people to take care of themselves. Just as an athlete needs recovery breaks, take time to rest and recover from work too. Only when you take care of yourself, can you help others thrive.

It would be difficult to have the commitment needed to reach the most elite levels of sport without passion. The same can be said for business. Live your passion isn’t just the theme of the Rio Games, but a way of life for anyone who aspires to be a business leader.

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