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Steve Backley

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The constants of leadership during turbulent times

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Steve Backley, former world champion, decorated Olympian and business performance consultant tells the community what qualities make a modern leader.

The 21st century leader is markedly different from his predecessor due to business requirements, modern communication tools and styles as well as fast-moving cultural changes.
The hidden champions of the London 2012 Olympics were the vast team of visionary, competent and effective leaders who designed, built and delivered a Games that set a new benchmark in terms of what is possible.

The leaders and coaches of the London Olympics certainly set a high bar in terms of their expectations and that of their wider teams, and without doubt, of the highly-tuned athletes - and on the whole over-delivered. But how does this relate to modern leaders in business, how they are performing and do they have a similarly transparent environment?

Here is the performance model I use drawn from the modern traits of leaders in sport that are relevant in business:

  • Find your passion (for yourself, your team and your business)
  • Develop empowering beliefs (demonstrate and engender a can-do attitude)
  • Power through clarity (have a clear vision and communicate it effectively)
  • Surround yourself with talent (get the right people in the right roles at the right time)
  • Deliver your maximum (lead by example and expect others to keep up and follow)

All of the above comes back to one question: as a leader how good are you with people?

As Richard Branson has said, "surround yourself with people who are genuinely excited about what you are doing; lavishing praise upon them, not criticising them and generally caring about them".

I subscribe to this as a future-proof culture that will allow your business to grow by encouraging a positive, optimistic but highly expectant performance culture as with that of the team behind the Games last year.

As in sport, the modern leader is charismatic, transformational and visionary. They will be fast-thinking and flexible to the rapid changing requirements in front of them. They will have competence and exude knowledge and expertise with a humility that allows others to feel that they are a role model, as opposed to the 'yell and tell' style of the bygone era. They will be great listeners, coaches and have the ability to see the perspective of others, and know how to deal with ambiguity.

All of this sounds rather rosy but it comes with a cost too: high expectation of the individual and the personal consequences of not delivering upon expectation. In sport, the consequences are all very transparent when it comes to the performers. Gold, silver or bronze is universally clear to all. The interesting part is that this level of consequence cascades upwards into the leaders in sport. A great example of this was that of Charles Van Commenee (head coach of UK athletics) who fell on his sword having not hit the optimistic targets he set for the team, despite an evening few will forget, Super Saturday, with three gold’s in track and field - an achievement never seen before in a British vest.
The question this begs is, would we see this self-enforced consequence in business?

Would we see this perceived success, but a failure to hit the overall performance goals, result in the stepping down of the leader of the organisation? And, in turn, would it be appropriate for the future of that business?

To watch our interview with Steve at last year's TrainingZone Live click here

Steve Backley OBE is the only British track and field competitor to win medals at three different Olympic Games. Together with fellow Olympian Roger Black, he started performance consultancy BackleyBlack. BackleyBlack have identified what they believe to be the non-negotiable factors that drive great results. This model has been built, challenged and tested by many of the elite achievers they have met over the years, and they feel represents the 'truths' of any top performer. For more information about BackleyBlack click here


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