I am exhausted. My eyes are sore and bloodshot and I have become estranged from family and friends. I have enormous difficulty rising from a sitting position and every few hours I emit a guttural, primeval roar. In short, I have Olympic fever.
For the past two weeks I have marvelled at the prowess of sportsmen and women from all around the world who have run, jumped, rowed, dived, sailed, shot, lifted and all the other sporting verbs to an extent mere mortals glued to the television cannot even begin to comprehend. If this was not enough, they have even invented a new verb: Olympians no longer win, they medal.
And medal they have with style, passion and sheer determination. Many of us draw inspiration from the games and Olympic champions are in high demand as politicians eager to bask in their reflected glory clamour to appear alongside the new generation of superstars. Business leaders are also keen to understand the athletes’ zeal for excellence and translate this formula for success into the corporate world.
But there is one critical difference between reaching the top in sport and success as a political or business leader. For sportspeople – despite all the hardship and sacrifice of a tough training regime – they have the luxury of a single focus. In the main, they are able to concentrate on being the very best they can be and notwithstanding the vagaries of form and injury they know well in advance when they will have to perform on the public stage.
By contrast, politicians and corporate leaders face all manner of conflicting demands on their time and abilities. Later this year, either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be elected for a four year term in the White House and on the other side of the world a new leadership team will take the reins in Beijing. Both countries face serious long-term questions about how to restore American competiveness and re-balance the Chinese economy as well as re-drawing the political relationship between these two main superpowers.
But most of their time will not be spent on restructuring the economic or political fundamentals to accommodate a changing global reality, most of their time will be spent on short-term fire fighting; dealing with an almost daily round of problems, scandals and crises. That is the reality of modern leadership. The to-do list gets longer and longer while the working day is very often blown off course by an unpredictable onslaught of what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously described as “events, dear boy, events”.
Whatever else they plan to do, next year’s new leaders in China and the USA will almost certainly have to deal with at least one major security crisis in the Middle East, multiple banking scandals and one of their close political associates being caught doing something they should not. And that will be in week one.
And it is not just political leaders that face this dilemma. Sir Howard Stringer, the out-going CEO of Sony, describes how the task of making Sony globally competitive in the face of Apple’s mighty product innovation was made all the more complicated by having to deal with the hacking of Sony’s on-line video game network, the impact of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, a Sony distribution centre being burned down in the London riots and the floods in Thailand wiping out production just ahead of Christmas. Add in the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the global financial crisis and the soaring Yen and you can see why CEOs like Stringer must feel that they live their lives in a wind tunnel trying to stay upright in the face of a constant barrage of unpredicted events.
Global supply chains are so taut and the news media and stock market’s demand for a response so immediate that there is little room for calm reflection. In this environment, crisis management is not a separate discipline to be brought out at times of acute need but a constant, mainstream strand of competent leadership. The issue is compounded by the cult of the individual that surrounds both business and political leaders. The job of running a major corporation or leading a nation is now so complex and multi-faceted that it is dangerously misguided to believe that one person has all the superhuman qualities that their propaganda machines often claim they possess. Leadership is a team sport.
The single-minded focus that sportspeople are able to devote to their core area of expertise must seem like a godsend to an embattled business or political leader. The Indian leadership struggling to restore power to a mere 680 million people must look at the 100 metre sprint with envy. They are probably less envious of the six men and four women that make up the Syrian Olympic team whose lack of medal success must seem less of a disappointment compared to the long road back to Damascus at the end of the week.