Leadership Spokane is committed to the truism that leaders always learn. As the 2018 Winter Olympics peak, I always marvel at how gracious so many of the athletes are after disappointing finishes. While medals come to some, for the vast majority, they will leave South Korea with no medal. After falls, spill and disappointing scores, the majority still keep a smile and congratulate the medal winners. This takes grace, an attribute that elevates some leaders above the rest. While grace has religious connotations, it also means a simple elegance which is the subject of this blog. The famous line “It is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters” echoes grace.
While we certainly remember some Olympic medalists, we also remember in Olympic lore some who did not win but showed grace in incredibly difficult circumstances. In the last 2014 Winter Olympics, one of the most memorable moments occurred during the finals of the men's cross-country skiing sprint. Russia's Anton Gafarov crashed but still managed to finish the race because of Canadian coach Justin Wadsworth, who ran onto the course to help him with a new ski to replace a broken ski. Equally memorable was the 2016 Rio golden moment when New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin was lying on the track, stunned after a heavy fall during the 5,000-meter qualifier. Despair turned to hope when American Abbey D'Agostino who got tangled up with her extended a hand to help her up: "Get up. We have to finish this." Together, the pair finished becoming a symbol of success for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Impressed by the graciousness of the two runners, the Olympic Committee advanced the runners to the finals. "I'm never going to forget that moment," Hamblin said. "When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years' time, that's my story ... That girl shaking my shoulder, (saying) 'come on, get up'."
Dr Maria Church in an August 2015 blog “Why Grace Matters to Your Organization” maintains that grace comes from care, compassion, and confidence. Certainly, leaders who have inner confidence can look at defeat in a positive manner knowing internally victory is just around the corner. Many Olympians fall into this camp as their long history of competitions teaches them that a race does not define them. Interestingly, a defeat handled graciously does define an athlete positively for the strong character it demonstrates.
Organizational leaders can follow Olympic grace in their performance as well. When faced with financial stress, leaders can show composure or disarray. When faced with unwanted competition or employee disengagement, leaders can elevate their voice or speak softly. When faced with personal attacks, leaders can lash back or smile and elevate themselves above the fray. In each case, leaders have a choice to make and keeping themselves simple and elegant is the surest way to retain grace. While grace is often associated with challenge, sometimes it is equally hard to be graceful in victory as well. Overconfidence leads to cockiness which more often than not can lead to a fall from grace.
Leaders always have a choice on how they respond to victory of defeat. For this Olympics, it is refreshing to see grace of so many. Grace is possible even in the most dire of circumstances. Dr Church relates a powerful example from Dr. Victor Frankl’s iconic book Man’s Search for Meaning: "He recalls a time when he was sitting on the floor in the concentration camp eating soup, exhausted after laboring all day for the Nazis, when a fellow prisoner rushed in to ask them to join him outside to marvel at the wonderful sunset.” Frankl shows us even in the midst of the horrific concentration camps, those prisoners facing execution “understood the beauty of grace.” Leaders have grace.
Courage is grace under pressure. ~ Ernest Hemingway