Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man in human history after setting three world records at the Beijing Olympics last year. Reaching the heights that Bolt attained required motivation, critical thinking and focus.
Even more important, it required turning early setbacks into advantages, turning weaknesses into strengths and developing the motivation required of a world champion. These three attributes are lessons that can apply to those working in business.
Play to one's strengths
If a sports coach hadn't recognized that Bolt's special gift was speed when he was young, he might have stopped at being reasonably good at cricket, a sport he had been practicing in his youth. When coaches advised Bolt to concentrate on a 400-meter race, Bolt had enough self-confidence to realize that his strength lay in the 100-meter dash. The Olympics proved him right. Bolt was cognizant enough in his own abilities that he knew when to accept or ignore feedback.
In business, you often find a heavy emphasis on gap-analysis, encouraging executives to focus on improving their weak points. It is almost always the wrong advice. If you are a great writer, but a terrible speaker, focus on writing even better and get someone else to do the speaking. Often the things we are bad at are the things that we don't really want to do. A recipe for success is to do fewer of the things we don't like, and to concentrate on those that we are good at. I remember a salesman who was spectacular at signing up new clients, but terrible at following through. His boss finally fired him. It was a stupid move. Finding his special talent is extremely difficult, while it is easy to find someone to handle mundane details once the sale is made. His boss should have kept him on the job and hired someone else to handle the administration. You need confidence in yourself, and if you are not the CEO, you need an organization that will support you.
Turn setbacks into strength
After going professional Bolt experienced a series of injuries and setbacks that might have discouraged anyone. However, without these setbacks, he might never have achieved the focus, discipline and pacing required of a champion.
What distinguishes highly successful people is not that they face fewer setbacks. We all face obstacles in our lives. However, successful people have the ability to find a positive framing that allows them to learn from setbacks and use them as a source of motivation. Apple's Steve Jobs likes to tell the story that had he not dropped out of college, the Macintosh would not have been as great a machine. He credits his current success at Apple to having been fired by that company 14 years ago. Facing death helped him focus on what he wanted to achieve in life.
Similarly, what distinguishes highly successful people is not they have no weaknesses. We are all human and are all weak. What distinguishes successful people is their ability to find ways to use their weaknesses to their advantage and to find strengths in themselves that others may not recognize. One of the heroes of the American Civil War was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an English professor and poet but also a fervent opponent of slavery who felt he couldn't live with himself if he didn't contribute to the war effort. Many of his colleagues felt he was too bookish to lead men into battle and too intellectual to be an effective field commander. But, when put to the test, the fact that he was different gave him credibility with men who mutinied against their more conventional officers. His ability to clearly articulate his vision of what the Union army was fighting for proved to be inspirational to his soldiers. Their valiant defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg was an important part of the Union victory. Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Motivation is the key to everything
Bolt had trouble early in his career because he was so much faster than everyone else that he neglected training, ate the wrong food and failed to concentrate. That was enough for local competition, but becoming a world champion required more. The key was motivation.
Motivation is equally important in business, and often as difficult to maintain. Some executives feel passionate about the job, or they feel a responsibility to the people they know in the company. Others want to hold on to the influence that comes with the position. What is the incentive for an executive at a company like Microsoft who has already earned millions to stay at the top of his or her form? Executives who already have everything they want can continue to give maximum effort by not resting on their laurels, but finding new challenges and other means of motivation to always be better. Many sport stars and executives share an intensely competitive spirit to win, which often has nothing to do with accumulating greater wealth.
What about the executive who sees his career at its limit with no prospects for moving further up the ladder, or is working for a company with a flattened management structure? In some situations you may have to work at motivation, just as Bolt did. Even the most routine jobs can be made interesting by turning them into a game. The trick is to treat the component parts of the job as a series of challenges and then to set small goals. It is a question of identifying something that you want to do a little bit better, a little bit different and then working on it incrementally. Usain Bolt is only 22 years old, but he knows the way. He has already been there. You in your job can do the same.
John Weeks is Professor of Organizational Behavior at IMD (www.imd.ch). He teaches on the Orchestrating Winning Performance and Advanced Strategic Management programs.
Professor Weeks will take part in an event with Usain Bolt on July 6, 2009 at IMD in which the Olympic gold medalist will share his insights on motivation with a business audience.