7 Leadership Lessons from the Tokyo Olympics

From collaboration and resilience to good leadership, there are many parallels between sports and business. Medalist and Olympian, Cath Bishop, shares her top 7 leadership lessons that can be drawn from the Olympics.
Dr Cath Bishop
Aug 05, 2021

The Tokyo Olympics offers a close-up intensive two-week course on leadership and performance under the greatest of pressures.  There have been so many different stories of success, adversity and adaptability at this most unusual of Olympics that featured such an uncertain build-up during the pandemic, an unusual absence of spectators, and some incredible role models amongst the athletes ready to challenge the status quo and explore the boundaries of what’s humanly possible.

I think there are seven key leadership lessons that we can all draw on (seven is an important number in Japanese culture and considered lucky):

1. Let’s talk about mental health

As if we didn’t already know it was important, Simone Biles has put mental health at the top of the agenda. To have a global Olympic superstar and ground-breaking sporting icon say that she needed to step away from competing in order to protect her own mental health, to say that it’s stronger to ‘step back’ than to ‘battle on’, has challenged traditional narratives around what success, achievement and strength look like.

She has exposed our inconsistency in how we react to issues of mental and physical health – why we feel differently when an athlete has anxiety compared with a calf strain. And why we think it’s ok to push through one but not the other.  Biles has shown that seeking support and sharing our vulnerability may be the only way to avoid crashing out or burning out, and may in fact offer us the best way to prepare for future long-term success.

2. Collaboration can yield the highest reward

Tamberi of Italy and Barshim of Qatar are close friends and sporting rivals and competed in the Olympic high jump event, ending up with an equal score and identical paths to top place.  When asked about whether they wanted to continue with a jump-off, they asked if they could share the gold – when it was confirmed that they could, they both celebrated with delight at being able to make history, as friends and competitors.

In the new thrilling climbing event, competitors get together to look at the wall, discussing the best routes ahead of competing.  The original meaning of the word ‘competition’ comes from the Latin word ‘competere’ meaning to ‘strive together’.

Working with others rather than against them can make all the difference in both the performance levels we reach and the experience we have along the way.

3. Learning is the engine of performance

Olympic rower Imogen Grant quoted Nelson Mandela when interviewed immediately after coming 4th and missing bronze by 0.01 seconds – ‘you win or you learn’. Sports psychologists work increasingly with athletes to develop a constant learning mindset.  Those who improve most are the ones who have the best chances of winning.  And regardless of whether you win or lose – and athletes accept that they will lose along the way – the most important thing is to keep learning, adapting, and progressing and not to let any results (good or bad) distract you from improving as much as possible from every training session and every race.

4. Failure happens and it’s ok

Double Olympic Champion Helen Glover made an incredible comeback after a break to have three children since the Rio Olympics. After a brilliant set of races, she and her partner gave their all in a thrilling Olympic final and finished a close fourth.  Her message afterward was, “trying and failing is not a problem, as long as you always try”. And if you have a constant learning mindset, then failure is just part of that continuous learning process.  Past results don’t define future results.  Tom Daley is one of many athletes to have proven that in Tokyo and shown that the path to the top is far from a straight line.

5. Diversity matters

Diversity is an important part of the constant change needed to keep the Olympics adapting to changing times. There is more gender equity than ever before at an Olympics in terms of both the events programme and the composition of Team GB. There are new events aiming to appeal to different audiences from skateboarding to karate.

Perhaps most inspirational of all, there are different stories and narratives to inspire us that go way beyond simply who wins the medals: members of the IOC Refugee team each has a powerful story to tell. Yusra Mardini’s story in particular stands out as she swam for three hours in the sea to push a sinking refugee boat to safety and now competes as a swimmer in the Olympics.  Strong performance and inspiration comes in many guises, and we shouldn’t expect it to look the same as it has in the past.

6. Values are still essential

Teams thrive when there is a culture based on values, playing to each other’s strengths and supporting each other under the greatest of pressure, in order to deliver your collective best. Whether it is on the hockey pitches, the rowing lake or the football pitches, no world-class teams expect to deliver their best performance without creating a culture that features both support and challenge, where psychological safety enables every member to be themselves despite enormous pressures and external expectations.

7. Gratitude underpins a resilient, high-performance mindset

As Team GB cyclist and former Olympic medallist Lizzie Deignan summed up after her disappointing cycling race, ‘we’ve had a pandemic and we’ve still had an Olympics. There’s so much to be thankful for, even to race here.’  Double Olympic Champion Adam Peaty stated that the most important thing for an athlete was to ‘have gratitude and humility’.

We have all gained a new perspective on what really matters over the last 18 months alongside renewed gratitude for some of the small things in life we have previously taken for granted.  It will be important for us to continue to draw on that greater sense of perspective and gratitude as we reshape our work environments in the future and continue to recover and rebuild personally and professionally.

These leadership lessons are drawn from just a few of the extraordinary human stories that have played out in Tokyo.  It’s been clear that the pursuit of excellence comes in many forms and the narratives of what success looks like have been broader than ever at this Olympics.

Moving beyond traditional cliches of heroes and heroines, physical strength and superhuman perfection, the athletes have shown us their human side, their adaptability to make this Games work and their brilliance to explore the boundaries of their potential together.  Not all have won medals, yet many more found ways to create lasting impact on others beyond themselves that will longer than a few precious moments standing on the podium.

In a world where we face complex business issues from aligning profitability with purpose, workforce health with sustainable performance, and diversity and inclusion with flourishing workplaces, there is much to learn from the Tokyo Games.


Dr Cath Bishop

Olympian, business coach, and former diplomat.

Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympian, former diplomat and business coach. She competed in rowing at 3 Olympic Games, winning World Championships gold in 2003 and Olympic silver in Athens 2004. As a diplomat for the British Foreign Office for 12 years, Cath specialized in policy and negotiations on conflict issues, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq. Cath now works as a business consultant, leadership coach and author, and teaches on Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and is a Visiting Professor at Surrey Business School. Cath speaks at events globally on topics of leadership, high performing teams and cultural change. She is the author of the book 'The Long Win: the search for a better way to succeed’, published October 2020, was described by the Financial Times as ‘a deep and rewarding exploration of human motivation in sport, politics, business and our personal lives.