I was an amateur boxer in my twenties (yes, seriously). I enjoyed a modest level of success, ultimately representing my province at the National Championships. Along the way I realized that what distinguishes elite athletes headed for the international stage isn’t just years of hard physical training. The hallmark of a champion is the ability to perform under pressure while adapting to any opponent. The mindset of HOW to approach competition is almost as important as the technical skills used during the competition.
Similarly, how business leaders approach the constant change that surrounds them is often more important than which tools and technologies they choose to adopt. Organizations now operate in an era of continual change, disruptive innovation and rising consumer expectations. In studying the leaders that have been most successful at managing risk and identifying opportunities within this context, I’ve found interesting parallels between their approach and that of elite athletes.
Leaders must see the big picture of the shifts occurring in their industry and constantly consider how their businesses should evolve to meet changing consumer habits. One need look no further than Blacks Photography, folding after nearly 70 years of operation in Canada, to see the result of being unable to adapt to a rapidly changing market.
Along with developing a long-term vision today’s leaders must employ an athlete’s flexible mindset. While entering the ring with a clear game plan, elite leaders have the ability to adjust to unfamiliar opponents and the willingness to pivot when necessary. The boxing ring may look the same each time you step into it but the risks and opportunities can change in real time, so a “test and learn” approach between rounds is often the winning strategy.
These are the elite leadership capabilities or “digital muscles” that enable organizations to survive and thrive in the digital economy. As Bruce Lee once said about the athlete’s mindset: “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind”. Just one of the many lessons that elite athletes can teach us about leadership in the digital age.