09 Aug 2012 Back

Leadership Lessons from the Olympic Front Line

VIEWPOINT: Caroline Webb is leading a double life. By day, she is your typical mild-mannered executive. Also by day, and sometimes by night, she is a performer in the cast of the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony. These are her observations:

As others have observed, the success of the mass volunteer movement underpinning the London 2012 Olympics can surely tell us something helpful about corporate purpose and large-scale change. But I’m not going to write about that here. For me, the stand-out insights from being a volunteer have come from something that is on a more personal level, and hard to admit without sounding pompous.

Here it is: for the first time in many years, I am not in charge of anything. I am immersed in something bigger than myself, over which I have no direct control. I’m not just visiting the front line, like a good CEO does from time to time; this line is where I stand, run and jump on command. It’s very clear where I am in the hierarchy, and this is fine by me. I’m not one of the professionals; I have minimal dance training, and I’m glad to have any kind of job to do.

And it turns out that this experience is pretty fascinating. What I’m noticing is duh-blindingly obvious to anyone in a junior position in our companies, but - my goodness - it’s helpful to be reminded of it as a manager and as a leader.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

 1. Leaders, show a little love. Little and often

The people running the rehearsals are normal people, albeit highly capable and endlessly patient. So I’m startled by how much I find myself just wanting to be near them, like an overage groupie. There are a hundred or so of us in my group, and we are working over an area equal in size to the Olympic Stadium, over radio, which means we’re mostly pretty far away from the main dance coaches. I often can’t even make out where they are on the ‘field of play’ when we’re rehearsing, and this distance quickly makes me feel bereft.

So when they take a few minutes to gather us for a little motivational speech, I notice that we all sit with our mouths slightly open as if to make sure we catch all their words. When we finish our 5-hour rehearsals, I find myself among those clustered around them, all but tugging on their sleeves for attention.

What I also notice is that the longer we are cut off from this kind of contact, the more skittish and critical we get, and the more we fill the communication vacuum with speculation and gossip. Yet it takes remarkably little to gather and focus us once more. We’re able to chew a few sentences incessantly for the hour on the train journey home, and (speaking personally, at least) engage in another hour of textual analysis over dinner with our spouses. ‘When he said this, what I thought was… When she said that, it was surprising, don’t you think?’ Lucky, lucky spouses. And lucky are the leaders who understand the importance of maintaining this sense of connection and dialogue.

2. Don’t assume people understand what’s in your head, however clear it is to you

‘Go that way! No, that way!’ But we couldn’t see what ‘that way’ was, because it wasn’t easy to see our Dear Leaders. We were deeply keen to do the right thing, and to be patted for it. But we didn’t know for sure what the right thing actually was. I shout ineffectually ‘which way?’, my words carried away by the wind, leaving me stuck between my desire to please and the inability to do so, and feeling foolish for having shouted. The others are looking at me as if I’m a crazy person. 

It reminds me of an exercise that a colleague taught me, and which we run in our workshops with clients, which is called ‘Making Clear Requests’. In the exercise, each leader is tasked with getting another person to draw a copy of an abstract picture they have in their hand, using only verbal instructions - that is, without showing it to them or making any desperate hand gestures. I know how hard this is to do. We usually run it as a competition between pairs of alpha leaders, who will happily compete over half a cupcake, and the conclusions are obvious. Leaders have to create clear points of reference. Check for understanding. Listen to their followers. Talk about one thing at a time.

So what worked for our captain, trying to marshal his scattered troops at a distance? Over the radio came his voice: ‘OK, can you all see me? (Check.) I am by the tower. (Check.) OK, this is what we’ll call 12 o’clock. (Points one way.) This is 6 o‘clock. (Points the other way.) Let’s use the terms ‘clockwise’ and ‘anti-clockwise’. Does everyone understand that? Please raise your hand if you do.’ Everyone raised their hand.

3. Make it very, very easy for staff to tell you what’s really going on

There was a point where it was clear that a manoeuver that we were being asked to do was going to be difficult to implement. I say it was clear – that’s true if you were out on the shop floor, but it was naturally less clear from the point of view of a supervisor. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that it was going to involve some time-pressured running uphill with something heavy. I began to notice that we all had different views on where we should be starting from, and how fast we needed to move. As I finish late for a second time I feel a surprisingly visceral spark of fear that I’m not doing what’s being asked of me.

So in our next break, I pluck up some courage to go and talk to the leaders. I tell them that we’re having a great time (smile), but that we need clarification, on this, on that.  That there are real worries about this, about that. I’m unsure whether they’re going to welcome input, or not. Perhaps I’ll just be seen as a trouble-maker. Or perhaps I am, in fact, a crazy person.

But you know what happened – of course you do. They thanked me, warmly. They said ‘that’s very helpful’. At the beginning of the next session, they acknowledged that they’d had feedback from a few of us, and they were going to try some different things as a result. At the end of the day, they reiterated to the whole group that our input had been helpful, and they asked us to keep providing it.

As you’re reading this, does it seem a little pathetic that I doubted I would be welcomed? If so, the thing I want to stress is just how forcefully I was reminded of the confidence it takes for junior people to raise critical concerns and share valuable ideas. I saw at close range one agitated young performer who was too shy to speak to a friendly dance captain who was walking right past her. So, leaders, however easy you think it is for people to bring you input from the front-line… make it easier. Seek it out, invite it. Don’t assume it will just arrive on your desk.

Unless you’ve just hired a crazy shouting ex-executive with minimal dance training.

Caroline Webb is Chief Executive of Seven Shift Leadership, a bespoke advisory firm that works with clients to strengthen their ability to lead and inspire change. Previously a Partner at McKinsey & Company, she remains an external Senior Adviser to McKinsey on leadership and she is a Senior Expert in the Mobius network.

Photo: at the time of writing details of the Closing Ceremony remained secret, so here's an inspiring picture of the Opening Ceremony

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