Our American athletes just competed the 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio. The U.S. has won a total of 121 medals, more than any other country in the world.
In this article, I want to focus on some helpful insights we can learn about leadership from the track athletes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Specifically, I’d like you to reflect with me on the 4 X 100 relay teams we sponsor every four years.
This event enables me to reflect on the “fails” I’ve experienced as I pass on responsibilities to young adults.
The Relay Team and the Handoff
Our four sprinters usually take their place at the starting blocks as the favored team to win a gold medal. Since 1920, our U.S. relay teams have won more medals than any other country. The American men’s relay team has won gold at 15 of the 21 Olympics held. Since 1932, American women have won as many Olympic gold medals in the 4×100 relay as all other countries combined.
When we’ve lost, however, it is usually at the “handoff.”
It is in times of transition that we are most vulnerable. Like the Olympic relay teams, our problem isn’t competency, it lies in passing the baton to the next runner. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, both our men’s and women’s team dropped the baton and disqualified themselves. It was so disastrous, it prompted the chief executive of USA Track & Field to promise a “comprehensive review” of the entire relay program.
What could be so difficult about passing a 12-inch long cylinder to another skilled athlete? In fact, it’s so simple runners just call it a “stick.”
This simple pass is as challenging as most anything can be for humans sprinting on a track. One athlete compared the baton exchange to “two ships passing in the night, but if the ocean were the size of a phone booth.”
Five Secrets to a Successful Leadership Handoff
Batons inspire complex evaluations from people like me, because they symbolize the passing of leadership and responsibility. Like our talented Olympians, we leaders often make shoddy passes to potential leaders we mentor every year. Certainly, our students need to “own” when they don’t accept responsibility, but in this post, I’d like to focus on what we can do better as leaders. Here are the fundamentals required of a successful baton pass.
1. Slow Down
Did you realize that an incoming runner on the Olympic relay team is speeding at 28 mph when he or she enters the passing zone? The outgoing runner is moving at 18 mph, which requires incoming runners to slow down in order to make the handoff. So it is with us. Often, established leaders fail to slow down to develop a young team member as they delegate tasks. We merely do it ourselves or “dump” tasks on others.
Q: Do you slow down and connect with young leaders?
2. Clear Communication
Just like relay teams, we must talk as we pass the baton. When I ran on our school track team, I remember saying “Mustang” as I passed the baton. It was the name of our mascot. Regardless of what is said, we couldn’t mumble or slur our words. Clear and key words must be spoken, just like effective leaders use clear language as they transfer values, skills and qualities to young leaders.
Q: Do young team members feel your directions are fuzzy or clear?
3. Proper Timing
In the Olympics, there is a 20-meter passing zone in which runners can transfer the baton. Approximately 15 meters into that zone is the perfect spot to pass the baton. In the same way, proper timing should mark the passing of responsibility and authority to an emerging leader. To miss on the timing issue can ruin a pass. Timing is everything when it comes to leader development.
Q: Do you dump or delegate? Do you wait till the time is right to empower others?
4. A Firm Pass
In a relay race, the runner with the baton must firmly jam it into the hand of their teammate, while clearly speaking the word. With the spoken word comes the transference of the baton itself. The “hand-off” cannot be pensive or indefinite—in word or deed. This is where mentors often botch things. We say we want to empower young team members, but frequently we fail to truly give them authority to take the project.
Q: Is it hard for you to actually give projects away?
5. Let Go Correctly
This is a second cousin to number four. Leaders must let go. Just like runners with the baton have the “eyes” and must trust teammates to take the baton, we must transfer tasks, power and authority— ultimately ownership. Good leaders multiply. Far too often, however, we fail to let go. Parents don’t let go of their children and leaders don’t let go of their power. This is why companies and families bomb at their ultimate job.
Leaders must always remember: success without a successor is a failure.
Looking to develop leadership skills in your students? Check out
Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes
Habitudes helps students and young team members:
- Break out of the herd mentality to influence others in positive ways.
- Take initiative and set the pace for other teammates.
- Overcome complex problems through creative persistence.
- Capitalize on personal strengths to be career-ready upon graduation.