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Duncan Scott


Harness the Olympic spirit for sustainable success

Published 30 July 2021 in Leadership • 5 min read

A victory-at-all-costs mindset is counterproductive. Olympians show how collaboration can help companies and society thrive.

British swimmer Duncan Scott went into the finals of the men’s 200m freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics as the fastest in the world this week. But he was barely a fingertip behind by his teammate Tom Dean who won gold.

Speaking after the race, Scott showed remarkable sportsmanship, telling the BBC: “Just a massive credit to Tom Dean, that was unbelievable. Olympic champion. He’s come along so far in the last 18 months, it’s a pleasure to watch. It’s great to be able to say he’s a good mate out of the pool. It’s great being able to compete against him as well.”

Scott’s attitude exemplifies the Olympic spirit, based upon the principles of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. He believed that, “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”.

Constantly striving in the endless pursuit of progress has exhausted both people and the planet

Just like in the business world, the sports world still focuses on creating a community that enables athletes to participate and to perform together, including nutritionists, doctors, coaches, officials and family, who collaborate to empower an athlete to thrive.

It’s the basis of the Olympic Oath, which was updated this year to emphasize equality, inclusion, the fight against discrimination and collaborating together to help make the world a better place through sport.

It’s an intent that translates to the business world. Too often, organizations are driven by winning at all costs at the expense of their competitors and employees. Wellbeing in the workplace and the stresses of remote work are coming into sharper focus. We also see more cases of sportspeople sharing their mental struggles, and putting their sanity before success as prescribed by others.

Organizations operating under an ego-based approach create an imbalance that negatively impacts wider society in terms of  performance and sustainability . Constantly striving in the endless pursuit of progress has exhausted both people and the planet. That’s why, with the global challenges the world currently faces, the definition of success needs to shift from domination to collaboration.

There are five ways that leaders can empower teams of all sizes to thrive and build healthier, more sustainable performances over time.

Harness the Olympic spirit for sustainable success
“When we look for what connects us rather than what divides us, we are lifted and inspired to be better versions of ourselves”

1. Start seeing the world as a living system

Leaders must look at the bigger picture: how the company connects and contributes (either positively or negatively) to the world, across the multiple areas highlighted by the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Now is the time to recognize that we are a part of earth, not apart from it.

When we truly awaken to the impacts of our linear economy and endless pursuit of profit, it can be easy to feel a sense of despair. Instead of facing up to the reality of the situation, we can slip into denial or distraction, neither of which are the responses needed in these times. Instead, we need to open up dialogue within and across people, teams, organizations, industries, governments: we are all in this together. 

2. Shift away from winning to thriving

Sportspeople understand that trophies do not define them, even though it’s a disappointment when the champion’s moment is elusive. Take the example of England footballer Marcus Rashford, whose missed kick during a penalty shoot-out at the recent Euro final against Italy sparked a litany of criticism following England’s defeat.

Rashford’s Twitter response reminds us that the match was just one performance of many, and not something that defines him: “All I can say is sorry. I wish it had gone differently…But I will never apologize for who I am or where I come from…I’m Marcus Rashford, 23 year old Black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else, I have that.”

Leaders must shift their mindset away from winning to thriving. Leaders who genuinely care for themselves and their people — and demonstrate it, as Rashford has done — will cultivate respect and help co-create the support systems necessary for the organization to flourish. Leaders can then dare their teams to stretch their abilities, and challenge them to reach new heights, just as athletes’ support systems help them attain improved performances.

3. Reset the language to change your organization’s narrative

Companies frequently use mechanistic language or words suited to a war. Treating an organization as a machine will always prove costly to employees, as organizations are also living systems, just like the people who inhabit them. By focusing on dominating others, we are destroying the environment and inhibiting inclusivity, equity and diversity.  

The corporate language and narrative that executives craft and reinforce matter greatly, as they reflect the stories and culture that we live by. Treat your team as a living system by using words that acknowledge our collective humanity. People are not assets or resources; they are individuals with hopes, wishes and dreams.

4. Foster greater collaboration and teamwork

An inclusive, diverse team will go much further than a collection of individuals. Having the best players in the world does not guarantee optimal performance. Collaborating across departments and disciplines while working towards a common goal builds trust, a sense of community and generates the desire to learn and grow together.

One of the beautiful things about being an Olympian is the feeling of camaraderie with people from different cultures all over the world, united behind a passion for sport. There is often mutual respect, regardless of language limitations or cultural differences. When we look for what connects us rather than that which divides us, we are lifted and inspired to be better versions of ourselves. 


5. Invest in the next generation

Countries or clubs sustain their sports teams over time through continual investment in younger athletes who are inspired and guided by the elite performers. New generations also bring new ideas and energy. Just as organizations are living systems, so too are people, and we all are subject to the cycle of life.

In order to sustain performance in a given sport year-over-year, it’s necessary to create seamless generational transitions. Athletes do not have the same level of optimal performances at age 65 as they do when they’re 25. Even if in 2021 you have the best team in your discipline, there’s a need to develop talent for tomorrow.

Taking a long-term perspective is essential for healthy functioning. Just as a sport invests in youth, so too business must invest in attracting and retaining talent and creating the conditions where that talent can flourish in the future. Ask yourself: what legacy do you want to leave for those that come next? And what actions can you take now to eventually pass on the mantle?


Susan Goldsworthy

Susan Goldsworthy

Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD

Susan Goldsworthy OLY is an Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD. Co-author of three award-winning books, she is also an Olympic swimmer. She is a highly qualified executive coach and is trained in numerous psychometric assessments. She is Director of the IMD Executive Coaching Certificate and Program Director of the Leading Sustainable Change program.

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian, consultant, and author of Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA (Bloomsbury, 2023) and The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France 1958-2010 (Lexington Books, 2012). She is an Adjunct Instructor at New York University‘s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.


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