Scroll Top

What All Leaders Should Learn From Olympic Divers

I like the way this guy, Nathan Bennett, writes and thinks, so I follow his posts on He’s a management professor at Georgia State and you’ve seen him here before too. I re-posted his Don’t Tack to Cover piece, about whether to follow the crowd or follow your instincts when it comes to career decisions.

In this post, he talks about what companies can learn from Olympic divers. It got me thinking about the decisions coaches make every day: How can each athlete best contribute to the overall team performance? Recognizing that you can’t burn out your star performers, and you also can’t ask players to nail something they haven’t trained for.

This mentality sounds different that the way many/most companies pursue development goals and performance reviews, where employees are all evaluated by the same metrics and the emphasis is on curing weaknesses rather than playing to strengths.

Here’s Bennett’s original article:

In diving competition, scores are earned on the basis of two criteria: degree of difficulty and execution. The best possible score, of course, will come from flawless execution of the most difficult dive. But there are many mathematical combinations of difficulty and execution that produce competitive scores.

Divers preparing for a competition have a sense of the point total they need to advance from the preliminary round to the next round and, ultimately, to place in a medalist position. They and their coaches review their program of dives, the way they’ve been diving recently, perhaps even the known tendencies of judges, and the likely programs their competitors will present. From that analysis, they determine what dives to attempt. They start from the needed point total and reason back to their tactics, all the while with an honest inventory of their capabilities in mind.

My experience suggests that leaders can learn something from this strategy. Surveys regularly show that chief executives want to drive change at their companies, that if they can’t change they’ll die, and so on. At the same time, evidence is everywhere that companies struggle to execute change effectively.

I think companies struggle with change because they attempt dives they have no business considering. Whether out of a love for Jim Collins’ “big, hairy, audacious goal” (BHAG), simple arrogance, or naiveté, executives often ask their companies to nail dives that are beyond their abilities.

Take a lesson from Olympic divers. Instead of the BHAG, think about the total number of points your company needs to generate to meet business goals with a change program. Then consider the sorts of initiatives your people have proven they can execute with the tiniest splash. Determine the surest way to earn the point total you need. Start with the end in mind, reason back, understand your limits, and plan accordingly. Just like in Olympic diving, there are many ways to earn a good score. You don’t need to earn all the points on one dive.

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.