Leaders can learn from how athletes develop resilience

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and/or demonstrating toughness.  There are many business leaders who have overcome great challenges over the years.  One example is Richard Branson managing to launch Virgin Atlantic when the banks pulled their funding for the new airline.  There are also many more stories of how athletes develop resilience.

Bob Champion won the Grand National in 1981 on Aldaniti. This victory was more amazing because both rider and horse could easily have been dead long before the race. Champion (what a great name for a winner!) was told he’d be dead in months after being diagnosed with cancer… unless he signed up for brand new cancer treatment with no more than a 40% success rate. And the horse he rode to victory – Aldaniti – had been so badly injured after falling in a race that the vet recommended the horse was shot. I can’t think of a better example of resilience than that.

Resilience in the face of physical injury

Staying with the horsey theme, Nick Skelton who won gold at the London 2012 Olympics as part of the British showjumping team has had to show his fair share of resilience. It was his sixth Olympic games and despite being one of the world’s best show jumpers, an Olympic medal had eluded him.

A career in a dangerous sport has resulted in many injuries. In 2001, he retired from show jumping after a near-fatal fall at a competition in which he broke his neck. Doctors told him another fall would kill him. But when he recovered he took the decision to compete again.
A bad fall a week before competing in London when the horse tripped did nothing to put him off. At 54, he was the oldest British Olympic champion and he trained for the 2016 Games in Rio.

For a professional sportsperson, there is possibly no greater setback than suffering a career (and life) threatening injury. So the resilience shown by these and countless other athletes has a number of lessons for business leaders.

4 Ways athletes develop resilience

1. Bravery

They make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. They can do this because they know what their objective is. Decisions about organisational structure, ditching old and developing new products and services and changing clients are taken for the good of the company. When things go wrong, resilient leaders stay firm, learn from their mistakes and setbacks and move on.

2. Confidence

Leadership can be lonely. The responsibility for performance ultimately lies with them. Resilient leaders believe in their own ability and have the capacity to remain optimistic. Where would Bob Champion and Nick Skelton have been without that?

3. The right team

They surround themselves with people who are great at what they do and trust them to deliver. And they are not frightened to change people for the good of the business.

Weak leaders do not. I had a client who had a longstanding manager who had become ‘person without portfolio’ in the business. Having failed in one position, he’d been moved to another and was unhappy. It was clear that it was time to part company, but the business owner let his emotion overrule what would have been a sensible business decision.

Athletes always have a team of specialists to help them succeed. They have athletic, fitness and psychological coaches, physios, nutritionists, masseurs and performance analysts. Nick Skelton relied on the help of an Australian doctor in the Olympic Village to get him ready to ride after his pre-games fall.

4. Commitment

Success comes when opportunity meets the planning. For an athlete, that opportunity is a match or a competition. And athletes train to be ready for ‘match day’. They are focussed on their goals. They overcome setbacks and put together schedules to give them the greatest chance of success.

Resilient business leaders show the same level of commitment and persistence to remain focussed on their goals. They are committed not only to the success of their business but to their own professional and personal development. Sadly only 3% of business leaders invest in their own development which may be the reason so many businesses struggles.

To succeed you need to develop resilience

I came across an amusing article that said to succeed (in business, sport and life) you need to be able to deal with all the CRAP: Criticism, Rejection, Adversity and Pressure. Dealing with these issues requires resilience.

Michael Jordan, arguably one of the best basketball players of all time is famously quoted as saying:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

If that doesn’t demonstrate resilience, I don’t know what does!

Fiona helps ambitious business owners and managers to develop the mindset, skill-set and systems that underpin high performance

She provides bespoke strategy, change management, and leadership development support to overcome barriers to growth.