Every four years the world is treated to the spectacular display of the Olympics. It is a time for the world to celebrate the victory of athletes who have succeeded in transcending their physical limitations to become beacons of inspiration for millions throughout the world. True athleticism is about the strength of the human spirit in physical form; so while we are seeing the tangible manifestations of years of training, what transfixes the world is the display of inner strength that pushes the edges of what we believe is possible.
What these athletes are doing is not just about their personal exaltation. They are breaking down barriers to what we believe is possible to achieve—and the generations that come after them are following in their footsteps, literally and figuratively. In my world, that makes them leaders.
Consider that 100 years ago, the best mile time for men was 4:14 (John Paul Jones 1913). Fifty years later it was 3:51 (Jim Ryun 1966) and this year, the top male is expected to run it around 3:41.* In one hundred years, 33 seconds have been shaved off what we consider to be world class. In context, top 14-year-old boys run the mile in the same time the world’s fastest man did a century ago.
There are advances in sports technology that support greater physical accomplishments. But without the drive of individual athletes to propel it we would not see the same progress.
In this Olympics, we will witness refugees without a country competing. We will see women in head scarves and those from countries lacking basic rights for females competing—competing not just for the sake of the sport, but also competing because they believe in breaking barriers and going where no one thought possible just a few years ago.
This is the strength of the human spirit coming forward to show us what we can achieve when we believe.
Few of those we will watch during the Rio games have ever held a job with a position, title or compensation that would make them classic leaders, yet, all have believed enough in themselves, their teammates and their country to push themselves to break new ground. Ultimately, leadership isn’t about how we function in controlled circumstances. True leadership comes forward when we are on the edge being forced to break new ground and how the character of each of us is revealed during those times.
Olympic athletes put themselves on that edge every day—pushing boundaries and willing themselves to achieve more through determination, perseverance and belief in themselves. This is why the Olympics captivate us, because each of us longs to be that person who believes in himself or herself enough to reach new heights.
Most of us will never compete in the Olympics. But we don’t have to. We can reveal our indomitable spirit when we find our passion and to express it. We can break through the barriers in our lives and inspire others through our actions. That is living leadership and it is how each of us can go for the gold—and win!
*Note the switch in international competition from the mile to 1500m. For the purposes of this article, the mile time was converted to the current 1500m world record.