Most of us who watched the recent gymnastics competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio found ourselves stupefied by the talent displayed by the diminutive athletes. To say that the routines seemed to be gravity-defying is an understatement. I mean, how do you even judge these? When the television commentator says that an athlete did a triple-flip with two-and-a-half twists, I can only take her word for it since most of the time I can’t see what’s going in inside the airborne flurry of arms/legs/leotards that ends in a “stuck” landing. The athletes often remind me of the Tasmanian Devil of cartoon fame, who was always winding himself up in a cyclone of indecipherable motion.
If you’re like me, you may start to wonder: how have these performances changed over the years?
Below are two videos. The first is a video of Cathy Rigby – every bit the household name at the time as Simone Biles is today – doing a balance beam routine at the 1970 World Championships in Yugoslavia (a former Soviet “republic”). Viewed through the lens of the 21st century, the commentator’s reaction to some of her moves are at times as amusing as the video itself. The second video is Simone’s balance beam routine at an international event prior to the Olympics in 2016.
With all due respect to Cathy Rigby, the difference between the two routines is almost comical. One of the advantages of the Olympic games is that, since most of us check into many of these sports for only one week every four years, we’re able to see the rapid change in ability that is less easy to see in a game like baseball that plays 162 games every season. It’s the very infrequency of the events that brings the stark improvement into sharper relief.
But while infrequency might make the change more apparent, it is not the reason for the change. For that, I think we need to remind ourselves of the value of competition.
Simone Biles and all the other great gymnasts since Cathy Rigby were the beneficiaries of an intensely competitive sport where athletes all over the world were constantly conceiving of, practicing, and perfecting incremental improvements over the most recent amazing moves they had seen in competition.
The key word there is “incremental”. Insert an extra half-twist here, a pike position there, add a few decades, and you end up with Simon Biles and all the other great gymnasts, male and female, who make Cathy Rigby’s routine look hopelessly dated. Cathy might as well have done her routine in bell-bottom pants.
This is all good for us to remember, because unless you have a tenured faculty position somewhere, competition is the water in which we all swim. Three thoughts for leaders:
- Developing friendly competition within an organization can be a lot of fun. Don’t be afraid to throw the gauntlet down and challenge colleagues to some sort of results-oriented competition. All participants enjoy a party at the end, paid for and served by the losing team. Cheap trophies encouraged. Trash-talking allowed.
- I have noticed, in an era of complex ecosystems and multi-layered alliances, that more and more people are uncomfortable with results-based accountability because they “can’t control” this or that part of the process. Don’t be these people. Step up and grab all the accountability you can. You’ll stand out from those who want to only be near – but never in – the spotlight.
- A couple years ago there was another international sporting event in Rio. That event showed us the important difference between actual decline and relative decline. More on that here.
Competition makes us all better (I’m looking at you, banks, cable companies and airlines). Leaders don’t shy away from it. They embrace the discomfort it often brings and emerge stronger.