Leadership Lessons from Olympic Athletes

Those are the words of Nawal El Moutawakel (pronounced “Moo-twa-keel”), Morocco’s Olympic gold medalist. El Moutawakel spent her childhood running through the streets of Casablanca in Morocco. She parlayed her speed and talent to earn a track scholarship to Iowa State University. In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, as the lone female representative on the Moroccan team, she dusted her competition in the 400-meter hurdles. El Moutawakel earned Morocco its first gold medal ever and became the first Muslim woman and first African woman to win gold. She ran her victory lap with a large Moroccan flag in hand, and citizens back home in Casablanca celebrated in the middle of the night.

El Moutawakel is a now a member of the International Olympic Committee, providing wide-ranging sports leadership. In her own country, she uses her celebrity status to help other Muslim women in sports. In 2007, she organized the nation’s first all-female 10-K race in Casablanca, which now attracts 27,000 runners. She has summed up her triumphs by saying, “My athletic race was the 400- meter hurdles, but it has been a metaphor for my life... You have to get over the hurdles and keep running.” That’s good advice for anyone, especially those in positions of leadership. Working with others and guiding organizations means getting over hurdles and moving forward. Olympic athletes are among the most disciplined, determined and dedicated people on the planet. “The Olympics remain the most compelling search for excellence that exists in sport, and maybe in life itself,” said Dawn Fraser, an extraordinary Australian who became the first woman swimmer to win gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games (1956, ’60 and ’64).

The lives of Olympians and their achievements offer these six inspiring lessons in leadership:

1. Olympians turn adversity into advantage. Writer Napoleon Hill said, “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit.” That truth is embodied by the life of Hungarian pistol champion Karoly Takacs. In 1938, Takacs was serving in the Hungarian Army and was the top pistol shooter in the world. He was expected to win the gold medal in the 1940 Olympics. But one day, during a routine military training exercise, a grenade exploded in Takacs’ right hand, blowing off his shooting arm.

Takacs entered a deep depression over the loss of his Olympic dreams. However, he turned this calamity into a challenge, deciding he would learn how to shoot with his left hand. Telling no one, Takacs practiced by himself for months. In the spring of 1939, he showed up at the Hungarian National Pistol Shooting Championship. Other competitors offered their condolences on the accident. “I didn’t come to watch,” he said. “I came to compete!” He surprised everyone by winning the competition. Though the Olympics were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II, Takacs continued to train and won gold medals at both the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games.

2. Olympians focus on the positive. A commonly spoken proverb says, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Olympic achievers set aside the negative to focus on the positive. During World War II, Tamio “Tommy” Kono and his parents were forced from their home in San Francisco to a Japanese internment camp in the California desert. A scrawny, asthmatic child, Kono found the desert climate better for his lungs. To pass the time, he began lifting weights, discovering it was something he enjoyed and was good at. After the war, Kono continued training even harder. Despite what had happened to his family, the young Japanese-American proudly represented the United States, winning gold medals in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics as well as a silver medal in 1960. The thin, unhealthy youth who was forced into an internment camp eventually set seven Olympic records and 26 world records. None of that may have happened had he not been confined to an internment camp as a child, where he focused on what was available, not what was left behind.

3. Olympians know the importance of integrity. Former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln said, “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.” That kind of integrity was important to Canadian Olympic sailor Lawrence Lemieux. During the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Lemieux’s race went well until the winds picked up and suddenly two Singapore sailors competing in a different, two-person event were thrown from their boat after it capsized under six-foot waves. One sailor desperately clung to the boat, while the other was swept more than 50 feet away by the currents.

Lemieux veered off course and rescued the sailors. Later it became clear that one, if not both, of the sailors would have drowned if not for the Canadian’s actions. Because of the delay, Lemieux came in 22rd place. “I could have won the gold,” he said, “but in the same circumstances I would do what I did again.” Lemieux’s act, however, did not go unrewarded: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) presented him with the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship. “By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage, you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal,” said IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch. Lemieux showed that winning at all cost is not winning at all.

4. Olympians maintain a sense of justice and fairness toward others. The best Olympians compete fiercely but also guide their lives by justice, fairness and sportsmanship. At the men’s pole vault event in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, five athletes reached the finals. Among them were Earle Meadows of the United States and two Japanese athletes: Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe. Meadows took first place. After five hours of competition, Nishida and Oe tied for second place. The Japanese teammates were offered a final opportunity to have a jump-off for the silver medal but the two friends declined out of mutual respect for each other. For the purposes of Olympic-medal recordkeeping, Oe agreed to accept the bronze while Nishida took the silver, because Nishida vaulted higher on his first try than Oe did. Upon their return to Japan, Nishida and Oe had a jeweler cut their Olympic medals in two and exchanged one piece with each other. Putting the bronze and silver halves together, they created a medal that came to be known all over Japan as the “Medal of Friendship.”

5. Olympians turn setbacks into comebacks. Leadership expert Stephen Covey says, “Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.”

Toward the end of World War II, Danish horseback rider Lis Hartel emerged as one of her country’s best equestrian riders. But in 1944 she became pregnant with her second child and contracted polio. The illness left her almost totally paralyzed. After she gave birth – the baby girl was healthy – Hartel vowed to return to equestrian competition. When she first tried to exercise, she could lift only one arm and use some thigh muscles. Then she began to crawl, and within eight months of being diagnosed with paralyzing polio she was walking, using crutches.

Eventually she learned to ride a horse again. Although she was paralyzed below the knees and needed help mounting and dismounting from her horse, she learned how to ride and perform without the benefit of the muscles in her lower legs. Remarkably, she won a silver medal in the 1952 Olympic Games – in dressage, a sport almost entirely dominated by healthy men. Hartel also won a silver medal in the 1956 Games. Her amazing comeback demonstrated the iron will of a champion.

6. Olympians break through excuses. Many people squander their potential because of self-imposed limitations. They make excuses for why they cannot engage more fully with life: I don’t have time. I’m too young. I’m too old. I’m too tired. Olympians, on the other hand, simply refuse to accept reasons for why things can’t be done. Consider the example set by track star Alice Coachman. Born in 1923 to a poor family in Albany, Georgia, she was a victim of racism. Segregation policies during that period prevented African-American athletes from competing in organized sports or using training facilities. But young Alice was not deterred.

She trained anywhere she could. She ran barefoot in fields and on dirt roads. She improvised with homemade equipment – using rags, ropes and sticks – to practice the high jump. Her efforts paid off. At the 1948 Olympics in London, Coachman won a gold medal in the high jump. In the process, she became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal. That year she was also the only female American athlete to win a medal of any kind.

Decades later, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Coachman was named one of the 100 greatest Olympic athletes of all time. 

Victor Parachin is a freelance writer living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Reach him at vmp5@cox.net.

Setting a Gold Standard 

TI has its own Olympic heroes 

By Paul Sterman

Toastmasters International knows firsthand about the leadership skills of Olympians. Terry McCann, who won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling in the 1960 Olympics, was Toastmasters’ Executive Director from 1975 to 2001. Under his tenure, the organization regained financial stability, tripled in size and established a world-wide reputation for its educational programs.

The same gifts that McCann displayed as an athlete – tenacity, confidence and integrity – served him well as he guided Toastmasters for more than two decades. Members recall him as charismatic and someone whose passion and commitment inspired those around him.

“Terry’s contributions to our organization is the stuff of Toastmasters lore,” Past International President Dilip Abayasekara said after McCann passed away in June 2006.

Amazingly, McCann isn’t the only Toastmaster to win a gold medal in the Olympics. In fact, he’s not even the only one to win gold in the sport of wrestling! Michigan native Steve Fraser, a Toastmaster from 1985 to 1990, was the Olympic champion in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1984 Games, which were held in Los Angeles, California. He was the first American ever to win a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Fraser has parlayed his leadership and communication skills into coaching talented young athletes. For the past 14 years, he has been the U.S. men’s coach in Greco-Roman wrestling and has coached his teams to 18 Olympic and world medals.

“Toastmasters was great for me, because I was just coming off of winning the Olympic gold medal and was thrust into the speaking world,” says Fraser. “So that was part of my motivation for joining Toastmasters, to gain practice and expertise in public speaking. It did that for me.”

After his 1984 victory, Fraser worked in a series of leadership and management jobs for the Domino’s Pizza corporation. His work included giving motivational speeches around the country – more than 100 a year. After hearing about the benefits of Toastmasters, Fraser started the Domino’s Pizza Toastmasters club at the company’s world headquarters, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He remembers calling Terry McCann for advice about starting a corporate club. Fraser says he talked to McCann a number of times over the years, adding that the fellow Toastmaster and Olympic champ gave him some public speaking tips.

“He was an amazing guy,” Fraser says.

McCann’s leadership went beyond Toastmasters. He also served two years as executive director of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, helped found a new national governing body for wrestling (now called USA Wrestling) and spent four years as its president.

Fraser says his own Olympics triumph taught him a great deal about how to succeed and lead in life. For one thing, everything is grounded in hard work. He says it took him 16,000 hours of training spread over eight years to be good enough to compete in the Olympics.

“Dedication and committing to something 100 percent would probably be the number one lesson of my Olympics experience,” says the 51-year-old. “I think to be successful takes that kind of commitment, that drive – to pick yourself back up when you hit obstacles.

“Good leaders have to show how important it is to overcome adversity. Nobody becomes successful in business or athletics without overcoming tough problems,” he continues. “And I truly believe that the people who get what they want, who get that pot of gold they may be striving for, are people who learn to stay focused on their goal no matter what trips them up along the way.”

Fraser says it’s also important to enjoy the journey. Drawing on his communication skills as a coach, he urges his wrestlers to take satisfaction in working toward their goals:

“I try to teach my guys that you might have the most grueling, exhausting practice, but when you leave the room you should feel good and happy and proud, because you’re making a move toward achieving your dreams.” 

Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine.