Small Sprockets and the Next Great American Skier

We are at the end of the Sochi Olympics, and as you’ve probably witnessed, there have been an incredible assortment of stories and achievements that have made these games special. One specific story from this past week reminds me of a leadership skill we can instill in students called Small Sprockets.

Mikaela Shiffrin was once like any other kid who liked to ski. She is that no longer. The girl who once lived in Vermont  prepared herself to compete in the Sochi Olympics, and she sought perfection like few other athletes do.


Let me explain.

First, she’s watched other skiers since childhood—not mindlessly, as she was tugged up the cable to the top of the mountain, but carefully, intentionally looking for what she could learn from them regarding mistakes to avoid or skills to replicate. She determined early on that she would always be a growing, lifelong learner.

Second, she has a camera on herself when she skis so she can constantly watch her changes and growth. Almost sadistically, she focuses on what she’s done wrong so she can push to improve. She has a harsh eye when it comes to herself. Kids often want affirmation or reinforcement; Mikaela has always craved criticism. She wants to see her ugliest slide, jump or turn. When she loses, she scrambles to see how it happened and learn.

Third, she works to always be ready by staying current in her strength and conditioning. This has enabled her to be the youngest American slalom world champion ever, as well as the winner of seven World Cup races at age 18. She embraces not just the adrenaline rush of competing or winning, but the process, the stuff no one else sees. That’s her differentiator: she loves the process. The grind doesn’t grind her down—it energizes her. She adores the daily journey. Johann Wolfgang Goethe once said, “Talent develops in quiet places, character in the full current of human life.”

“That is what makes her able to sleep at night,” her mother Eileen says.

“She’s working toward mastery,” said Kirk Dwyer, the headmaster at Burke Academy. “You recognize that perfection is never attainable. You could work toward that, but if you achieved it, you’d probably switch and do something else.

To summarize what makes her so unique as a competitor, leader and person:

  1. She loves the process
  2. She embraces criticism
  3. She’s into her sport, not herself

The Small Sprocket

One of our Habitudes is called, “The Small Sprocket.” (Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes.) Consider a small sprocket. This tiny gear must spin many times against a big one in order to get it to spin just once. If the big sprocket is a hundred times bigger than the small one, that little gear must turn a hundred times to get the larger one to revolve just once.


Leaders know—this goes with the territory. They’re like small sprockets and must turn and turn many more times than their teams to do. Great leaders love the process, just like Mikaela. They also recognize the good news, too. Once you’ve rotated enough times, momentum becomes your best friend. The small sprocket actually creates momentum in the big gear and now can receive energy back.

Reflect and Respond

In the world of nature, we can learn a lot about the small sprocket principle from another small creature, the ant. Their highly organized colonies often consist of millions of individual ants, yet they appear to operate as a single entity. They work in teams to move extremely heavy things. They gather food during harvest and store it until the winter months. Without an administrator, they perform specific jobs as workers, soldiers, drones and queens. Yet, when a catastrophe occurs, the ants quickly adapt their duties to overcome the problem. Here are some questions to consider:


Summarize the characteristics that enable the ant to succeed.


Contrast the ant’s initiative and perseverance with our own human laziness. Why do we often fail to persevere? What prevents our “spinning?”



Evaluate yourself on the following qualities that we find in an ant’s work ethic.

1. Integrity: The ant doesn’t need supervision. It works out of pure instinct.


Have you been in a program that was stagnant? What kept it from making progress?



2. Initiative: The ant starts to gather food without being pushed or incentivized.


In your activities, do you ever feel alone in doing all the work? How do you respond?



3. Industry: The ant has a spirit of industry. It works and works until the job is done.


How do you stay inspired when you don’t see results nor feel any gratification?



Choose a cause you believe needs to be promoted on your campus or in your organization. Determine to take six months and actively promote this cause. Choose two or three actions you can take that would strategically help people understand and support the cause. Then—do them. Spin like crazy. Evaluate at the end of six months. Do you see any improvement? Will it take more time?



Small Sprockets and the Next Great American Skier