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Leadership Lessons—Olympic Disappointments

My wife Mary Kay and I love watching the Olympic opening ceremony. It only happens every four years yet the memories and lessons linger forever.

If you didn’t watch Friday night, you didn’t see Michael Phelps lead the 554 U.S. athletes into the stadium as the flag bearer. He has already won 22 Olympic medals but never attended an opening ceremony as he always competed the following morning. Very cool to see him leading the team—regardless of how he does this year.

You also didn’t see the one-man delegation from Tuvalu—an independent nation in the South Pacific comprised of nine small islands. The population of Tuvalu is less than 10,000. In the stands Friday night were nearly 80,000. Should this Olympian make the finals of the 100 meter Track and Field event, he may be running against Jamaican legend Usain Bolt. Bolt has won two golds in the event.

My leadership lesson, at least for this week, has nothing to do with this year’s Olympics in Rio.

The first is a story you may remember from the 1992 games in Barcelona. When Derek Redmond was 19 he set the 400-meter British record. In Seoul in 1988, he had to withdraw from the 400 meter race minutes before it started an Achilles injury. The next year he had five surgeries and slowly came back with the hopes of running in Barcelona in 1992.

His dad, Jim, accompanied him to Seoul. They were best friends. The pact between them was that Derek would finish the race … and it didn’t matter if it was for first or last. There would be two semi-final races. The top four finishers in each race would race for Olympic Gold.

With only 175 meters left in his semi-final race it was obvious Derek would make the finals. Then he heard a pop. It was his hamstring. He starts hopping on one foot until he fell on the track in tears. All of his hard work after the surgeries went for naught. As the medical personnel ran toward him, Derek got to his feet and started limping/hopping toward the finish line. He told the medical people that he would not get on the stretcher and he was going to finish the race.

As Derek slowly hopped toward the finish line his dad, Jim, came running from the stands, past the guard to reach his son. He got to his son, put his arm around him, and held him up as both advanced towards the finish line. On several occasions track officials attempted to stop them. Dad didn’t let that happen. He was going to make sure his son finished the race—just as both had previously discussed.

The 65,000 people in the stands stood, cheered and cried as father and son crossed the finish line. Grab some Kleenex and watch several versions of this on YouTube. Look for the Derek Redmond Race. Today, Derek Redmond is a motivational speaker inspiring thousands of others with his message of goal setting and determination.

The first leadership lesson for me is as a father to make sure I am there for all three of my kids along their life path—ready to hold them up when they need it along their way.

The second is with my own staff and others I meet along their life path. There will be times when I need to support them to get over their challenges—and when they just need help getting across their own finish lines.

The next lesson involves a story I doubt that you have heard. It happened just a couple months ago with 23-year old swimmer, Alex Ngan. He was competing in the 50-meter freestyle event at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb. He would be swimming against Olympians Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, while competing before 38,000 fans the next morning at 10 a.m.

He had a 4:15 p.m. flight out of Oakland to Salt Lake City with a connection to Omaha. His first flight was delayed and arrived with just eleven minutes to make his connection to Omaha. He ran to the gate but saw the flight had left. As he talked to the gate agent he learned that there wasn’t any way he could make it to Omaha that night. There wasn’t any other connection he could take that would get him there—regardless of all the routes.

What was his option? Quit? Just go back to Oakland? There was an option—he could rent a car and drive all night. It was now 9 p.m. and it was a 941 mile trip that, perhaps, he could make in 13 hours.

He stayed awake and raced up to 100 mph to make it. That is when he was stopped for speeding. Even with this, he saw that he had 30 minutes to make it. That is when he switched from Google maps to Apple maps and realized that Omaha was in the central time zone and he had little, if any chance to make the race time.

Just outside of Lincoln, Neb., only 55 miles away, the clock hit 10 a.m. and his quest was over. He continued to Omaha and saw teammates and friends who were competing.

When all was said and, unfortunately, done Alex recounted that it was only four years until the next Olympics and he might make that one. He also said he would leave earlier next time.

My leadership lesson?  When you have something that is of extreme importance—properly plan, realize potential challenges, and figure out what is needed to achieve success. There were flights that could have been taken earlier in the day—a lesson for all of us who travel for business.

Enjoy this year’s Olympics. Just by watching I’m sure you’ll learn many leadership lessons as I will with you!

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