Leadership Lessons from the Olympics: Accountability & Authenticity

I love the Olympics. Every four years, the best athletes in the world perform and compete at the highest levels, with the whole world watching. It’s a demonstration of what’s great about competition and what it means to be a part of a global community.

With such a high-profile stage, there is incredible scrutiny on both the athletes and the organization running the games. This scrutiny brings pressure, and reveals some tremendous object lessons for leaders. During these games, we’ve seen both good and bad examples of how leaders responded to pressure and criticism.  The difference to me is, accountability.

BAD – the International Olympic Committee

The IOC has certainly done several things right during these games. But, they’ve been startlingly tone deaf on some topics. For example, officials were slow or reluctant to address issues at venues or the Olympic village. Hey folks, the diving pool water is green. People notice, they take pictures, and tweet about it. It’s a story, whether you want it to be or not. Accepting accountability for any messes and getting out in front of it would have been a lot better than the slow and faltering reactions they provided. Denial and ambiguity are not good leadership.

GOOD – Gabby Douglas

American gymnast Gabby Douglas was the feel-good story of the 2012 games, winning both all-around individual and team gold medals. But in Rio, she failed to qualify for the all-around individual final, and did not get the chance to defend her gold medal performance from four years ago.

The criticism she received on social media this month was both fierce and pretty unfair. Her reaction, unlike the IOC, demonstrated authenticity and class. By being up front, she was able to address her critics, accept her admittedly disappointing performance and reject incorrect narratives about selfishness or being a poor teammate. Her teammates and the public responded in turn, with messages of support and encouragement.

Think about your business in this context. Something bad happens at your hotel, store, job site or office virtually every day. Virtually everyone in a company is a content creator and so most everything is happening in public. This micro-publishing technology is only “disruptive” to businesses that fail to hold themselves accountable and address issues.

The very best leadership doesn’t just monitor and respond to critics. They proactively move to address issues. This is the definition of accountable leadership. Holding yourself accountable will often be rewarded, not punished.

The technology and rapid news cycles didn’t create the need to be accountable to customers, shareholders or the public, it accelerated it.  Leaders that focus on accountability and authentic communication won’t struggle in this more rapid age, they’ll thrive.

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