The gold-medal CEO: Olympic lessons for leading your team

Mark_carrowBy Mark S. Carrow

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio provided insight into the importance of culture and responsibility, the best (and worst) strategies for dealing with obstacles, effective leadership, and the hard work required to meet your goals. Here are some examples.

Responsibility for the culture and actions of your team

The 2016 Olympic boxing match between Michael Conlan of Ireland and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Nikitin was clearly won by Conlan. Boxing’s governing body, the International Boxing Association (IBA), however, disagreed with that outcome and proclaimed Nikitin as the victor. The final decision by the judges was unfair, and they ultimately left in humiliation.

The repercussions to the association will be severe — not just economically, but also in terms of reputation. With the sport’s high-profile coverage throughout the world, it was irresponsible of the management team to let this happen on a global stage. Great culture filters down from upper management to the very last employee. A great CEO would never let haphazard decision making affect the reputation of the company.

Character in the face of hardship

American middle-distance runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand rival Nikki Hamblin collided and fell in the women’s 5,000-meter race, eliminating them from the competition. Any hope of winning a medal had vanished after years of training and hard work. No one would have blamed them for simply walking off the track. In a similar incident in the 1984 Olympic Games, Mary Decker and Zola Budd also tripped. Budd recovered and finished the race. Decker, realizing she could not recover, lay on the track and cried in anguish.

The key difference in these two stories is the level of character portrayed by the athletes. D’Agostino and Hamblin exuded tremendous courage despite their disappointment. Not only did they help each other to their feet, but they completed the race. An embrace at the finish line was captured on film. Their display of true Olympic spirit will carry on in perpetuity. Unforeseen circumstances can be blinding, and there are several ways to react when they occur. Business can be similarly unpredictable and challenging. The key is to find the path that will leave an everlasting impression of your character and your company.

Outstanding leadership abilities

Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”), coach of the U.S. men’s basketball team, is the first basketball coach to have led his team to three straight gold-medal finishes in the Olympics. Each season, he adapts his coaching style to leverage the best aspects of each player’s personality and talent. Teamwork and collective responsibility are core to his coaching methods, which is why he encourages the use of the pronouns “us” and “we” over “I” and “me.” Players whose performances are regularly criticized by the media, including Knicks player Carmelo Anthony, seem to perform better under Coach K’s leadership. Understanding the members of your team and being able to adapt your leadership style to create a unified collective is the mark of a true leader.

Success through preparation and hard work

Too often, Michael Phelps’ success has been solely attributed to his physique rather than his talent and work ethic. This isn’t fair to Phelps because, like any successful athlete, he knows that a dedicated training regimen is key. He and his coach developed a very strict and disciplined routine in which Phelps trains in the pool six days per week, in addition to dry-land circuit training with weights three times per week.

He changes the exercises and their order so often that his body cannot possibly adapt to a set routine, and is therefore constantly being challenged. Phelps competed in five events in the 2016 Olympic Games. He is now the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. He also holds the all-time record for gold medals, with 23.

His physique may have played a part in his success; however, the commitment and mental fortitude required to become the greatest Olympian of all time is immeasurable. At the commencement address for Auburn University, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “In business, as in sports, the vast majority of victories are determined before the beginning of the game. As current events teach us, those who try to achieve success without hard work ultimately deceive themselves, or worse, deceive others.”

The examples set forth by the best athletes in the world prove that anything is possible if you have the grit and focus to achieve your goals. A great deal can be learned by the culture of the athletes, the methods in which they trained, and how they conducted themselves in the public stage of competition. In the words of Coach K, “My hunger is not for success, it is for excellence. Because when you attain excellence, success just naturally follows.

Mark S. Carrow, CPA, MS, is the managing partner in Citrin Cooperman’s Philadelphia office, which provides tax services, business consulting advice, valuation services and merger and acquisition guidance. Contact him at

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