What can business learn from the Olympics?

2nd August 2012

Allister Heath in today's Telegraph suggests that the ‘core' Olympian values that we admire unquestioningly – ‘meritocracy, competition, discipline, elitism, the pursuit of excellence and the quest for victory in a global showdown between the best of the best "- are met with far greater ambivalence when practised in other spheres, not least in business. This is a strange paradox, a fundamental inconsistency in our national culture that is holding Britain back."

He argues that Britain is naturally suspicious of commercial success, which is inevitably dismissed as motivated by greed or ego, "even though the personality traits, values and the belief that work is good in itself, that cause greatness in sport, are little different to those that lead to triumph in business."

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the Olympic goal appears more altruistic. The success of business leaders is often judged on share price performance, which in turn boosts their personal coffers. The pursuit of the long-term good of the company is indistinguishable from the pursuit of high remuneration, so business leaders will always tend to look greedy.

The Telegraph piece certainly brought out some sceptics: steveinaustria said: "Please give us the names of some of these world-class British businessmen that could earn bronze, silver or gold in the "Business Olympics".

"Britain would probably win silver to the USA's gold in "Paying executives too much" but I can't think of any other discipline that we could win a medal at."

Any discussion of whether we should be giving our business leaders greater respect should take in an analysis of the US, where the ‘cult of the CEO' is firmly established. CEOs appear on ‘most admired' lists, battle to feature in ‘Forbes' magazine and can be as glamorous and charismatic as rock stars. However, this year's ‘most admired' list threw up some interesting choices – Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs may struggle to make next year's list.

Whether the choices are good or not, the cult of the CEO is partly responsible for the huge executive pay increases that have been seen around the world. The US has exported high executive pay as we discuss in this Mindful Money article here. This may be an unwelcome side effect of greater ‘celebration' of our business leaders.

Some commentators have gone as far as to argue that too much celebration of personality in business leaders can ultimately be destructive: "Ultimately, executive pay inflation starts to dictate the culture of a company. And, as investment banking has shown us, that can have devastating impact on performance."

Instead, perhaps it may be better to look at companies as an organic whole and celebrate the teamwork that goes into making a company successful. After all, this is also one of the most attractive traits of many Olympians. Even the arch proponent of glamorous CEO's – Forbes magazine – recognises that few CEOs are islands: "While the CEO is a very important person, our research shows that enduring business performance is really driven at much deeper levels: a focus on leadership strategy. Long term business performance comes from leadership culture and careful and continuous development of leadership at all levels. It's not all about the CEO."

Bradley Wiggins did not simply ‘emerge'. The conditions had to be right to allow his talent to flourish. Companies are the same. It is right to celebrate the pursuit of excellence, but not when it is deemed to rest with a few charismatic individuals at the top of an organisation. Great British businesses – now there's a concept we could all get behind. 


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