Olympian Leadership Lessons in Peak PerformanceLater this month, the 2012 Summer Olympic Games get underway in London, England. The games certainly do have their detractors and a history of controversy, violence, and scandal. But more importantly, the games are an inspiring tribute to healthy competition, international cooperation, and the pursuit of exceptional performance. Dawn Fraser, gold medal Australian swimmer at three Olympics declares, “The Olympics remain the most compelling search for excellence that exists in sport, and maybe in life itself.”

Time and again we watch resilient and highly driven athletes reaching deep inside to triumph over adversity. Many who don’t win medals inspire us with personal bests as they overcome the toughest competitor of all — themselves. “It is the inspiration of the Olympic Games that drives people not only to compete but to improve, and to bring lasting spiritual and moral benefits to the athlete and inspiration to those lucky enough to witness the athletic dedication,” observed Herb Elliott, an Australian middle-distance runner. He never lost a race from 1957 – 1961 and broke the four minute mile 17 times during his career.

The quest for personal excellence is what the father of our modern Olympics and founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Pierre de Coubertin, envisioned over a hundred years ago: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” French educator and historian Coubertin toiled  hard for years in the late 1800s to revive the modern Olympics. His persistence paid off with the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. The ancient Olympic Games were held every four years in the Greek city of Olympia from 776 BCE through to about 261 or 393 AD. During those games battles were halted, as the best athletes competed in a healthier environment.

Coubertin felt that could be a model for international cooperation and rechanneling competition more constructively. A century later, American composer John Williams (his works include numerous popular film scores and theme music for four Olympic Games) confirmed that vision: “The Olympics are a wonderful metaphor for world cooperation, the kind of international competition that’s wholesome and healthy, an interplay between countries that represents the best in all of us.”

Leadership, like athleticism, is multi-faceted. I hope you find this month’s issue inspirational and instructional. We’ll build off another international feat of athleticism — Nik Wallenda’s walk over Niagara Falls — to discuss the high wire balancing act of leadership and management. Pursuing excellence demands change. We’ll see how champions — often monomaniacs with a mission — can be incredibly irritating and vital to moving us forward.

The official 2012 Olympics web site features their logo along with the slogan, “Inspire a Generation.” The core tenants of leadership like excellence are timeless and cut across generations. We’ll take another look at the generational nonsense that too often clouds the real issue: every age group wants inspirational leadership.

London is famous for “The Tube” — its subway system. Everywhere are signs to “Mind the Gap” between the train door and the station platform. In this issue we look at Zenger Folkman research on a critical leadership gap that can create a values ceiling.

Emil Zatopek was a Czech long-distance runner who won three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. When asked about his unusual facial expressions while running he replied, “I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time.” Most of us aren’t talented enough to do all the multi-tasking we take on. We’ll look at how to reclaim our time and our life.

The Olympics have a history of wonderfully hilarious sportscaster gaffes. For example, a boxing analyst once defended the brutal and barbaric “sport” (pounding each other’s face to a pulp is a sport?) this way: “Sure there have been injuries and even some deaths in boxing, but none of them really that serious.” And a basketball analyst pointed out, “He dribbles a lot and the opposition doesn’t like it. In fact you can see it all over their faces.” I hope to see laughter — or at least a few smiles — all over your face as you read “Jest for the Pun of It.”

Let the Games begin.