Executive Careers Blog

Leadership Lessons from the Winter Olympics

Phil Stott

The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver was something of a study in how to deal with adversity and setbacks—and all the more valuable for the fact that it took place on a global stage. Were there leadership lessons within it? Of course: For wherever there are decisions to be made, there are examples of leaders stepping forward. Here, then, is a brief summary of some of the major issues dealt with at the ceremony, and how they were managed.

Outsized Expectations

Remember the opening ceremony at the Beijing Games last summer? Of course you do—everyone does. Director Zhang Yimou spent over 100 million dollars, employed some 15,000 performers, and delivered an unforgettable spectacle to the watching world. Imagine, then, being put in David Atkins' shoes, and charged with directing the first opening event of a major games since. And being handed some 60 to 70 percent less of a budget than the last guy had. Stressful, much?

Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games - See Complete Coverage

Atkins' situation, of course, will ring true with many inhabitants of the workforce these days—and especially executives. Those still fortunate enough to be drawing regular paychecks are being asked to do more with less all the time, and to continue meeting or exceeding organizational performance levels from bygone days when resources were more readily available. Similarly, Atkins' response to his challenge unwittingly reflected what has been going on across the country since the onset of the recession: He used much less manpower, and relied on a mixture of technology and illusion to flesh out his program. Result: An altogether simpler opening ceremony, but still successful in what it set out to achieve.

Unforeseen Tragedy

The tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just hours before the ceremony threatened to cast a pall over not only the day, but the Games as a whole. The immediate aftermath of the event saw speculation on everything from the luge event to the opening ceremony to the Games themselves being canceled. While the last two possibilities were never really an option—not with all the sponsorship and advertising involved—the way in which the IOC handled the incident was crucial to ensuring that the reputation of the Games emerged untarnished while still moving forward.

The decision to dedicate the opening ceremony to Kumaritashvili—and to incorporate both an ovation and a minute's silence for him into the ceremony—allowed the organizers to continue with a successful event in the face of tragedy. It also allowed for minimal disruption to the original plan for the ceremony, and succeeded in reinforcing the Olympic brand and ideals.

Last Minute Glitches

Anyone who watched the ceremony until the end will have noticed the technical glitch that hampered the main event: The lighting of the flame. While four pillars were supposed to emerge from the ground to form a support for the Olympic Bowl, a mechanical glitch saw one get stuck. Interviewed on NBC later, torchbearer Wayne Gretzky noted the calmness of the organizers even as they failed to resolve the problem. Having failed to manually crank the lever into place, they decided to improvise and allow the ceremony to go ahead with only three of the pillars in place. The entire process—which lasted less than five minutes, from glitch to solution—underscored the notion that even the most elaborately laid and rehearsed plans can go wrong at the critical moment. Keeping calm under pressure is the key to improvising successful solutions in such instances.

Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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