MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Achieving your full potential, with Usain Bolt

Record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt explains how we can all turn talent into solid achievement...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Usain Bolt is, undeniably, a phenomenon. At the age of 23, the young Jamaican is (by some distance) the fastest man on earth, and he’s single-handedly changed the physical template for a modern sprinter. It’s tempting to assume that Bolt is just a freak of nature, and it’s true that he clearly has an exceptional talent. But that much has been clear ever since his successes in junior athletics – his achievements at (and since) Beijing are testament to his coaches’ ability to translate this into achievement through years of training. Bolt and his coach Glen Mills recently popped into the IMD business school in Geneva to talk about their working relationship, so we asked IMD’s John Weeks and Jean-Louis Barsoux to furnish MT readers with their top tips for translating potential into achievement.

1. Don’t try and make it alone
Usain Bolt had shown enormous early promise, but by the time he met Glen Mills he had become an injury prone underachiever. Mills overhauled his training program to improve Bolt’s strength but also to protect a congenital spine defect that was the root cause of his recurring hamstring injuries.  Finding the right coach or mentor is critical for anyone who wants to improve. In a recent Fortune article, Google CEO Eric Schmidt reckoned that the recommendation to ‘hire a coach’ was the best piece of advice he ever received – not because the coach can do it better than you, but because he or she helps you to know yourself, face your weaknesses and decide where to allocate your efforts.

2. Forget entitlement
Mills helped Bolt to understand that his physical talent was no guarantee of success, unless accompanied by the requisite mental strength and discipline. To reach the top in any field, natural talent is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. It is the same for aspiring leaders who assume they will ‘make it’ on the strength of their brains and ambition. We meet too many high potentials who aspire to high leadership, but are used to rewards for being bright and creative. This breeds a sense of entitlement that is incompatible with the need to work on their weaknesses and continue learning.

3. Keep listening
Getting a great coach or mentor is pointless unless the athlete remains receptive. As successes accumulate, it is easy to get carried away. The fun-loving Bolt chose a trainer renowned as a strict disciplinarian, knowing that Mills would help him stay focused on the task. Bolt understood he needed someone to keep him honest. It’s the same for executives: as they accumulate successes, they can grow hard of hearing or even deaf. To make sure they do not become imbued with an inflated sense of their own importance, they need to maintain contact with people who will keep asking the awkward questions.

4. Turn setbacks into strengths
The first big psychological lesson that Mills taught Bolt, and the one that stuck most in Bolt’s mind, was: ‘You have to learn how to lose before you can learn how to win’. That means discarding that crippling fear of failure. As Bolt puts it, once that fear is gone, then you can focus on the positive and you can play to win. Management scholar Chris Argyris noted a similar challenge for fast-trackers in organizations. He found that the psychological make-up of smart people paradoxically made it harder for them to learn. Having rarely experienced failure, they had not properly learned how to deal with the embarrassment and sense of threat that accompanies it. When they encountered failure, it triggered defensive routines that inhibited learning. 

5. Build resilience
Mills also instilled in Bolt the idea that injuries are part of the game when you are pushing your body to its limits. They are to be expected – and even welcomed as part of your development. Injuries help to build mental resilience. They provide an opportunity to correct weaknesses, but also to reflect on the things you are doing right. Similarly, for executives who are stretching to the limits of their capabilities, it is impossible to avoid setbacks and even the odd derailment. Currently, many former high flyers are suffering from the economic crisis. The question for them is: Are you learning enough from this? Are you happy with the way you are investing your energies and what it is adding up to? Such setbacks can help individuals identify what they truly value and who they truly trust.

6. Manipulate stress
Bolt shows no signs of nerves as he prepares for a race. On the contrary, he likes to entertain the crowd with cheeky antics. The pre-race routine helps to take his mind off stress and to gain a sense of control over his environment. Where anxious rivals see the pressure of expectations from the packed crowd, Bolt sees support. He believes that ‘the crowd is your friend.’ Executive life is replete with potential stressors including difficult relationships, job uncertainty, travel obligations, unrealistic deadlines and sudden changes. To progress, executives have to learn shut out those stressors – or, like Bolt, to reframe certain inhibiting stressors as stimuli.

7. Keep your eyes on the prize
To push himself through punishing training sessions, Bolt keeps his eyes on the long-term objective. But he also knows that come the training session, he won’t want to do it. So he has given Mills the permission to force him to do it. Numerous studies have shown that people are really bad at following through on things that they want to do in the long term, because they tend to discount future benefits so steeply. Like Bolt, ambitious executives must forfeit immediate benefits in the interests of longer term goals. This might mean finding clever ways to save themselves from their own weaknesses – ‘pre-commitments’ that will help them to stick with an objective they might otherwise dodge.

8. Upgrade the dream
After his stunning feats in Beijing, Bolt’s new-found celebrity generated fresh distractions, including interviews, talk shows and celebrity parties. For a while, he lost his motivation to train, until a chance exchange with an old friend made him realize that his real dream was not to smash records but become ‘a legend’. Similarly, for ambitious executives, there may come a time when they achieve what they set out to achieve in their current careers – at which point they may have to contemplate what will sustain their motivation, their emotional flexibility and their intellectual vitality over the coming years or even decades. Getting the job is one thing, but how do you maintain the appetite to keep improving?

9. Keep it fun
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the ebullient Bolt is his sense of fun. He jokes about the hard work and the amount of effort, pain and discipline involved, but he projects an infectious joy that comes from doing something that he loves to do and having a purpose that he believes in passionately. Even the most routine jobs can be made more interesting by turning them into a game. The trick is to treat the component parts of the job as a series of challenges and then to set small goals. It is a question of identifying something that you want to do a little bit better or a little bit differently, and then working on it incrementally.

10. Beware of hubris
Bolt left it entirely to Mills to decide whether he would double up in the 100m and 200m in Beijing or whether participating in the 100m would jeopardize his chances of gold in his specialist event, the 200m. As world record holder in the 100m, Bolt could have insisted on entering both events, but he realized that overconfidence might cloud his judgment. Executives also have to ‘know their limits’. Typically, there is a stage in your advancement where the next challenge is ‘way beyond’ what you have done before. You need to recognize this discontinuity and not let the excitement of the challenge distort your judgment about the stretch required. The last thing you need is to sign on for ‘mission impossible’.

The authors both work at IMD, a global business school in Geneva; John Weeks is professor of leadership and organizational behavior and Jean-Louis Barsoux is a senior research fellow.

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