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Three Leadership Lessons from Sochi: Practice, Practice, Practice

What do great leaders and great athletes have in common? They both work really hard to be the best.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

The Winter Olympics are upon us, and with them come moments of glory and triumph as well as frustration and defeat. While it is impossible to predict who will medal in each event, one thing is clear: None of these athletes began practicing last week or even last month. They have persevered for years. They have endured 4 a.m. trips to the ice rink and numbing cold on endless runs down the slopes. Each of these athletes has worked hard simply to get the opportunity to rise to the top of their sport.

A couple of years ago, I met Amy Purdy at a PopTech conference. We were chatting at a reception when she learned that I work at the Harvard School of Public Health, and she asked if I knew much about meningitis. I replied that I didn’t and asked why. She explained that she had contracted meningitis and experienced multiple organ failure that almost killed her. While she made it through, both her legs were amputated below the knee. That was a remarkable story. But even more remarkable was that she’d gone on to become a world-class snowboarder. She’s on the U.S. Paralympic snowboarding team bound for Sochi.

This is the lesson for leaders: No matter your natural abilities, you can’t simply read a book or take a class and expect to be world-class . Becoming an outstanding leader takes practice and determination—lots and lots of it.

Fortunately, you can find opportunities to practice leadership skills every day if you start looking for them. Your activities at work, in your community, and with your family can all offer chances to articulate a vision, solve complex problems, negotiate with divergent stakeholders, decode situational dynamics, display emotional intelligence, and motivate followers.

Here are three leadership exercises you can integrate into your regular routine:

1. Be fully present for one day each week to build your emotional intelligence. We spend a lot of our time multitasking. For this day, try to uni-task with people. Your goal? A genuine engagement with everyone you encounter from your immediate family members, to the barista at the coffee shop, to the security guard at your building, to your subordinates and your boss. Put down your smartphone. Take off your earphones. Address each person by name. Make eye contact. Ask a question and listen, really listen, to the answer.

Notice how people respond to you when you are present. You’ll become more aware of yourself and your impact on others. You’ll become more attuned to body language and other nonverbal cues. These are skills that great leaders have mastered. It may be hard to slow down at first. But I predict you’ll soon find it so gratifying that you’ll want to be fully present more and more.

2. Assume a power pose to boost your confidence and calm. Research by Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy has shown that assuming a power pose for two minutes can boost your testosterone and lower your cortisol levels. (Just think of Superman or Wonder Woman standing with feet slightly apart, shoulders back, and hands on the hips, or an Olympic athlete with arms raised in a victory “V.”)

Changing the chemical balance increases your self-assurance and calms your jitters in a high-stress situation. People perceive you differently. You feel more powerful and become more open to risk. It sounds silly but it works. (Of course you’ll want to do your posing in private, and the cape is optional.)

3. Keep a leadership journal. Taking the time to reflect has become another casualty of our rush-around lives. As a leader, however, it is essential that you build your understanding of yourself and the world around you. These shape how you perceive opportunities and threats, how you make decisions, and how you comprehend what elements of leadership are needed in any given context. Dr. Barry Dorn, my colleague at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), has taught me (and a lot of our students) the importance of keeping a journal. Take a few minutes at the end of the day to jot down what went well and what could have gone better. What surprised you? What did you learn about yourself and others?

The journal doesn’t have to be fancy and your entries don’t need to run on for pages. One of our NPLI alumni, a rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard, practices what he calls “micro-journaling”—bullet points that he wants to capture. About once a month, read back through what you’ve written. This is the story of your growth as a person and your development as a leader.

You may have deduced by now which side I’m on in the debate about whether leaders are born or made. Some people may have physical characteristics that give them the look of command. Others seem to be naturally charismatic. But not always—look at Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill for counterexamples. What really makes a great leader is taking whatever natural gifts you start with, building on it through intentional effort, and making the most of what life throws your way. Great leaders fall down, and get up. They believe in the future. Most of all, like all great athletes, they practice, practice, practice.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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