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  Applying What We Know About Sports and Athletics

Last month we applied some concepts from the athletic realm to the area of increasing managerial effectiveness. This month we return to the ideas gleaned from the Olympics and relate them to building organizations that excel, or go beyond "ordinary" performance.

Just to review, we noted last month that both Olympic athletes and "Olympian managers" have the ability to envision the results they desire, and that the vision is articulated in very concrete, vivid terms. We also noted that peak performance individuals in any domain have learned to use mental rehearsal to hone their performance in competitive or demanding situations. The third component discussed related to skill building. High performance people are constantly building their skills in the areas in which they perform. Finally winning performers have extraordinary ability to focus their energies on achieving their vision and goals, and tuning out distracting issues and events.

Visioning Results

The winning organization requires that every member have a clear idea of what the organization is trying to achieve, but more than those members of the organization must see that vision in very vivid concrete terms. This is because the function of the visioned results is to energize people to strive for higher performance in their own domains, and this energizing will only work when employees see the connection between their own needs and the dreams of the organization.

Many organizations assume that if they go through a strategic planning process, producing a role & mission or mandate, that this supplies the vision and energy needed to excel. While a role and mission statement may help add clarity to purpose, it is too abstract to excite the dedication needed for the organization to excel. That is why we suggest that a strategic planning process kick off with a visioning process which is concrete, colourful and engaging, resulting in a narrative or story about the organization and its future and the results that are sought.


If athletes are able to rehearse to prepare for their competitive events, and managers need to use this ability in a similar way, organizations need to prepare for the future by anticipating events, conditions and opportunities, and preparing for them. Peak organizations respond quickly and correctly to changing contexts, and they do this by playing out "what if" scenarios before the fact. Not only does leadership consider contingency planning, but employees, in their work, have considered their reactions to challenging situations, and are prepared with proper responses and actions.

Skills, Talent & Ability

Athletes and superior managers are constantly striving to learn, and to add to their ability to do their jobs by adding to their skills. The superior organization sets a climate that promotes the enhancement of employees' skills and talents. Even if formal training is unavailable, successful organizations have employees that learn from their leaders, from each other, and from their clients. Simply put, there is no substitute for knowledge and skills.


Athletes are able to tease out the relevant from the irrelevant, effective managers need to focus their attention on the important, and organizations focus on their function and purpose. Employees are clear that their focus is on the substance of their jobs.

What does this mean? It means that effective organizations spend less time discussing and dealing with tangential issues. Typically an unfocused organization will spend a great deal of time wrestling with issues like internal structure, organization of work, who does what, and numerous administrative processes. In fact the unfocused organization is the organization that "has meetings to discuss how to have meetings".

The focused organization is able to keep in mind that how it does things, is important, but not the critical component of its success. What is important is producing the result, the service or the product, and that the procedures to create the results are subordinate to this goal. Discussions of procedures are always linked to results, and have no value in and of themselves, and organizational members understand that.

Role of Leadership

Perhaps the main thing that distinguished leaders from managers is that they are able to inspire organization members to peak performance. Leaders set a tone and climate that supports the building of real visions, supports the notion of planning and preparedness and continuous skill building and learning, and constantly helps employees focus on what is important. Without this leadership, an organization may be able to function adequately, but will not be able to move with changing contexts, or to excel in its endeavors.

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