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10 lessons in leadership from an Olympic medalist

Every four (or in this case, five) years, my past as an Olympian comes roaring back — and I’m always thrilled! I competed on the U.S. Women’s 8+ boat in rowing at the 2004 Athens Games, earning a silver medal and breaking a 20-year-long winless streak in the boat class. (Fun fact: The Women’s 8+ boat has created a dynasty by winning a gold medal at every single Olympics since our race in 2004.)

Now that I’m 17 (gasp!) years past my athletic prime, I’m able to reflect on what the Olympics taught me. Not surprisingly, reaching that level of international competition has informed the way I lead. Here are just a few of the many leadership lessons I now apply to my life as a founder and CEO of AC&C Marketing.

Competition is fuel. I thrive on competition. Without question, the fiercer the competition, the better I’ll perform. These days, I’m my stiffest competition – oh, and the clock.  

Joy is winning big as a team. Yes, I’m a self-starter, but I get more energy and more pride from a team win. Would I rather win big individually or win huge together? I’ll take a huge win in sports or business any day. 

Look for the calmness. Before launching for a race, I would always find a quiet spot to collect my thoughts and do a mental race walkthrough. Seventeen years later, I have a similar experience before making big business decisions or closing deals.  In both scenarios, I can feel the nerves turn to focused, productive energy.

Welcome the nerves. If I’m not nervous, then I’m not at my best (and likely bored). If you’re somebody who shuts down when the pressure is on, then likely competitive sports or business, in general, won’t be a good fit. For me, it’s the only way to live. 

Pick your battles. Every day cannot be flat-out if you want to win big when it counts. As a racer and CEO, remaining consistently excellent is critical, however, it’s also important to strategically pick when to unleash the beast! I’ve learned when it’s time for me to lead with gusto and when it’s time for me to listen and empower my teammates to take the lead.  

Ego is not confidence and confidence is not ego. The biggest egos fall or give up the quickest when the pressure is on. A person with a humble, checked ego wins races because they’ll put the team goal before their pride. Same at work. Scrappy team players who have the audacity to commit, resourcefulness to ask for help, and confidence in their ideas will succeed.   

Persevere relentlessly.  Success in business and sports mean enduring a lot of loss. Losses mean that you’re pushing yourself outside of your comfort level. If you stay in the safe zone and simply pursue easy wins, you’ll never make it to the big time. Losers inevitably become champions!

Details matter. In the Olympics, regardless of the sport, one sloppy bobble is the difference between winning and losing. It’s the same in business. How do you eliminate the bobbles? You practice. What do you practice? The details. The details always matter, and it’s always worth taking extra steps to achieve the highest quality. 

It takes a village. In rowing, we were supported by coaches and every type of therapist: physical, mental, massage, you name it. In my marketing business, I’m supported by my leadership team, strategists, developers, planners, designers, and more. In both cases, my family and army of friends were and are critical for success. Embrace the village to win big (and perhaps go back and read my point about winning as a team).  

Grit and guts (and vulnerability) are a requirement.  Dreaming is easy, but (re)committing day in and day out when it’s hot, cold, hard, or painful is the hard part. With a little luck, only the strongest will accomplish their dreams. This is how I feel about building, scaling, and leading our AC&C Marketing team. As with the Olympics, digging deep is required.

P.S. Here’s a link to our race if you would like to check it out for yourself. My phenomenal teammates and I are in lane 3. I’m the fourth woman from the back of the boat. GO USA!