Any leader in any profession can benefit from knowing what it takes to coach a team to Olympic gold. Good preparation, good execution, and good luck. That's what the CEO of USA Track & Field, Doug Logan, says it takes to create a good team performance. The validity of that formula might be questioned after the world watched both the men's and women's teams fail miserably in the 4 x 100 relay races in the 2008 Olympics. But the leadership validation we gained when the medals are awarded is no more valuable than the leadership lessons we learned when the baton is dropped.
Ultimately it is the individual athletes who drive themselves to their own victories, but what about the failures? When both the men's and women's US track relay teams took themselves out of medal contention by missing a baton pass, fingers were pointed immediately at "leadership." Is it valid to credit the individuals for the victories and blame the coach for the failures?
Logan, as the top blamed leader in the track and field organization after the stunning Beijing Olympics failures, responded almost immediately to the leadership accusations. "I have received emails from people across the country, particularly about the relays," he wrote in his blog. "They all say more or less the same thing: the dropped batons were reflective of a lack of preparation, lack of professionalism, and of leadership. I agree. Dropping a baton isn't bad luck, it's bad execution."
Accountability is an admirable quality in a leader, but doesn't the individual performer have to take ownership for individual execution? According to Logan, "Responsibility for the relay debacle lies with many people and many groups, from administration to coaches to athletes. That's why, when these Games are completed, we will conduct a comprehensive review of all our programs... included in the assessment will be the way in which we select, train and coach our relays." For any leader in any profession, this may be the best piece of leadership inspiration that the 2008 Beijing Olympics had to offer.
When managers look for which employees to blame for poor service, poor sales, and generally poor performance, they are looking at the effect, not the cause. How did a low-performing employee get selected in the first place? What part of training is failing to adequately prepare employees to perform their tasks? What coaching improvements will create execution improvements? How is the system setting the team up for failure instead of setting it up for success?
These are the kind of questions that world-class leaders ask because these are the kind of questions that yield productive answers. When the questioning stops at "What went wrong and who did it?" the leader leaves both the individual and the team stranded in a state of defeat instead of leading them out of it.
It's easy to look like a brilliant leader in moments of victory. It's not so easy to be a brilliant leader in moments of defeat. You won't win any medals for how you respond to the failures of your team, but it's the actions of the leader in their own critical moments of truth that make everyone's future success possible.