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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

What Leaders Can Learn from Michael Phelps

Michael Sohn/AP
Most of the world knows by now that U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps broke the all-time record for most medals won by an Olympian in London this week. It’s a truly amazing achievement on Phelps’ part but, honestly, not one in which there are many legitimate leadership lessons. Seriously, how many of us have the gifts and abilities in our respective fields that Michael Phelps has in his? As the Brits might say, not bloody many.


That said, there is a very applicable lesson about preparation that leaders can learn from Phelps. If you’re a regular Olympics watcher, you probably remember that Phelps won one of his medals in Beijing in 2008 while swimming with his goggles full of water. He couldn’t see a thing and still won gold. After that race, Phelps said that while he had never competed before with water in his goggles, he had practiced that way. In an interview with NBC in London this week, Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, said he made sure his guy had the water in the goggles experience to be prepared for that scenario in Olympic competition.

When it happened in real time, Phelps’ preparation enabled him to stay calm and start counting his strokes. He knew how many strokes he needed to touch the wall and didn’t stop swimming full out until he did.

As I wrote last year in a post about how the Coast Guard prepares for emergencies, great leaders do what Bob Bowman did for Michael Phelps. They give their team members the experience or at least the opportunity to think through what they’re going to do if things don’t go perfectly.

Dwight Eisenhower said that, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” The noted philosopher Mike Tyson echoed that idea when he said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit.” In other words, you can plan the perfect attack, fight or race but stuff happens and it rarely goes the way you hope or think it will. As Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman proved in Beijing, the physical and mental preparation you do to get ready for what could happen can make all the difference.

What do you do to prepare yourself and your team for any eventuality?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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