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Katherine Tyler Scott
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Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Right aspirations, wrong definition

Canada appears to have fallen far short of its goal of "owning the podium" at the Vancouver Olympics. How can leaders know the difference between a "stretch" goal that inspires people to reach new heights and an unattainable goal that winds up demoralizing people?

Aspiration is essential to achieving desired goals, but, as important as it is, it is just one indicator of the passion, commitment, discipline, and endurance necessary to accomplish them. The Canadian promise to "own the podium" was based on a hope for a different outcome than perhaps their past would predict. Goals must be one part aspiration and one part reality.

Leaders who are most effective in planning for the future always consider their organization's historical performance and its current capacity. This "reading of reality" can identify the gap between aspiration and achievement. It helps leaders to shape realistic responses that narrow if not close the gap. Effective leaders know many of the factors over which they have control and, whatever their plan, wisely anticipate and prepare for the unexpected.

In terms of the Olympics, every participating country sends their best to represent its people. This is the known. However, when the best compete against the best, someone will "lose." Does this mean failure? Should they regret having had aspirations of winning? I don't think so. The mistake the Canadians made was not that they had higher aspirations for success; it was their definition of success. "Owning the podium" is as unfortunate choice of words that conveys massive ego inflation rather than reasonable pride in having athletes who will do their best.

We have witnessed the unexpected during this Olympics. One tiny mistake can cost an athlete a medal. A coach can misinform an athlete, and the dream of gold disappears in a second. The touch of a skate blade can disqualify the team that raced to first place. An over rotation in skiing can wipe out an appearance on the podium. The Olympians can't all win medals, but all are successful. The leader who can convey this message will inspire followers to aspire to greater heights.

The leader who sets realistic goals and encourages conditions in which followers will risk innovation and failure, endure adversity for the promise of accomplishment, and diligently continue to improve their skills will get people to achieve beyond their imagination; and if they fall short of their goal they will feel successful not demoralized.

By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  February 26, 2010; 3:53 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Out of step for Canada | Next: 'Own the Podium,' vindicated


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We live in Rain Forest's on Vanc Island where our logging industry is undergoing tremedous economic hardships currently. So we didn't feel we could blow 2/3000 bucks attending the games. So my wife (mostly) watched on TV.

Except for hockey, I'm not the #1 fan of the Olympics anyway. Especially those boring sports in the summer games. And now that the IOC is cancelling my other sports love 'Baseball' I probably won't watch much of the London 2012 either.

Without baseball whats a Canadian farm boy to watch anyway?

But these 2010 games got me hooked big time. Not so much for the elite Gold Medal winners as much as for the courage that some of those incredible 'Nobody' kids displayed, even though they rarely finished in the top 20.

One foreign boy had painful broken ribs, yet that brave kid competed just the same.

An American girl with banged up shins also competed and won GOLD.

A girl figure skater (unprojected) from Quebec lost her mother 3 days before she was to skate. Know what?--That pretty girl won an unexpected Bronze and the hearts of all the world as she cried getting her medal.

It was not one of our famous elite athletes that carried our flag at the 'Closing Ceremony', instead it was that little girl from Quebec! And even old hard-hearted me, had a few tears in his eyes (but I didn't cry truthfully).

There was some kind of 3 skaters team race and the Americans were beating the German girls. When suddenly one American girl ran out of gas and her legs turned to rubber.
Yet she struggled across that finish line.
She din't win any Gold Medals.
But she sure as hell won my admiration.

Posted by: hapstokes | March 1, 2010 2:58 PM
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Does the federal government have any contracts with this woman's company. It
would explain a lot. A terrible article.
Maybe it was written two weeks ago!

Posted by: photinus | March 1, 2010 2:16 PM
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This column is utter nonsense. The Canadians went into the games with high hopes. In the final analysis, they won 14 gold medals, more than any other country. In particular, they won both hockey golds (that can be considered the national sport in Canada).
There is nothing wrong in having goals and aspirations, particularly when you make a good showing.
As to competition in the games, not everyone who competed espected to win. Some people compete because inclusion in the competition is, in itself, an honor. And don't forget Eddie the Eagle who based a career on coming in last.

Posted by: FredinVicksburg | March 1, 2010 1:50 PM
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Let's see:

US population: 308 million
Canada population: 34 million

US medal count: 37
Canada medal count: 26

Per capita, Canada certainly did own the podium! I'm very proud of all the US athletes, but big caongrats to Canada!

Posted by: seaduck2001 | March 1, 2010 1:22 PM
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What about 'Own The Podium (per capita)'

Posted by: HardyW | March 1, 2010 1:17 PM
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Funny to hear an American call Canadians "egotistical". That's like Americans calling Europeans "fat".

BTW, Canada did break the record for the most gold medals in a Winter Olympics at 14, so I'd say they pretty much pwned the podium.

Posted by: AxelDC | March 1, 2010 1:15 PM
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Though Canada did not own the whole podium, they did own the middle one. If you go down as far as sixth place, USA and Canada dominated these games.

Is the rest of the world still interested, or is the drug testing working?

Posted by: MHawke | March 1, 2010 1:13 PM
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This silly commentary should be republished in the Toronto _Globe & Mail_; it would be fun to read the howls/hoots of derision in reaction to the pompous Ms. Scott who obviously does not know a thing about Canada or Canadians, or the way they view the Olympics or in particular their reaction to the Canadian victory yesterday in men's hockey. As for "massive ego inflation", Americans are scarcely in a position to criticize. It's pot calling kettle black.

Posted by: Mikhailovich | March 1, 2010 1:06 PM
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Second place is the first loser.

"Own the Podium" -- Great for Canada and any one that aspires to be the ver best. Americans need to get a grip and realize in the real world competition is the way it is. This touchy-feely crap is just that and it is killing American's competitivness in everything we do. Go USA!

Posted by: staterighter | March 1, 2010 12:48 PM
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Canada "owned the podium" in the true amateur sports of women's curling and women's hockey. Congratulations, Canadian women!!!

Posted by: CellBioProf | March 1, 2010 12:44 PM
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It seems as if our world is governed by consultants, that we are "over-consulted" now.

"Own the podium" is an appropriate slogan for a national team. The podium encompasses individuals and teams who finish first, second or third. Does anyone in business or politics strive for third or rewarded for it.

As we have seen recently in both the business and political worlds winning at all costs is fraught with future consequences.

I can't believe Mrs. Scott could have a successful career as a consultant advocating a bronze medal is okay. However, the Canadians have advocated just that point.

Posted by: pdeblin | March 1, 2010 12:14 PM
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14 Gold medals = success


Good job Canada and good job Germany and USA.

Posted by: theobserver4 | March 1, 2010 12:08 PM
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I love it. A management consultant from Washington, DC or Indianapolis, IN commenting on the winter olympics and Canadian sports psychology. Yes, own the podium was a little brash. But, they did own the podiums that the athletes stood on, Vancouver gets too keep those. With regards to the medal numbers - who cares. Counting medals does not make the Canadians less proud. The great white north should be more proud that they competed with honour and sportsmanship. There was no whining about judging or officiating from the Canadian athletes. They did the olympic spirit proud. Yes, including the womens hockey team. You go girls.

Posted by: MDL7 | March 1, 2010 11:55 AM
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This is bizarre -- the whole premise of the article seems incorrect, as many have pointed out. Did you watch the same Olympics the rest of us did Ms. Scott? I mean, even NBC couldn't filter out Canada's success. Did you accidentally write Canada instead of Russia? Cheers to you Canadians and your gold-winning ways...

Posted by: dwelz | March 1, 2010 11:54 AM
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They certainly owned the top of the podium at least, so it wasn't too far off.

Also, off topic, someone below mentioned Shock and Awe. Has anyone ever pointed out that "shock and awe" is the literal definition of terrorism? What does that say about a leadership?

Posted by: paperisthin | March 1, 2010 11:28 AM
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It seems Americans give Canadians reason, some good and some bad, to dislike and resent us. For the bad, take a look at some of the comments made here. If you read the Toronto Star or the London Times you can see the prejudice daily. There are a lot of people, I suspect born at a time that does not permit them to know or recall much about what the world looked like and who were the villains twenty years ago.

And then along comes someone like Katherine Tyler Scott to give all those people that believe the US is narcissistic and arrogant fodder for their cause. How anyone in their right mind could suggest Canada underperformed by any definition in the Olympics either failed to read or watch, or had her article planned before the Olympics were held.

If Scott really wanted an appropriate subject for her article, she might have focused on the US media. Then the lead to the article could have been, "Wrong aspirations and right definition."

Posted by: kermit5 | March 1, 2010 11:24 AM
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As a person who was born in Asia I felt rather troubled by the phrase "owning the podium." Canadians have things to be proud of, but arrogance can never be a reason to be proud.

Posted by: rohitcuny | March 1, 2010 11:16 AM
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It all in the hype, and the psychological effect on the athletes. Canada initially bloated its goals out of proportion. Only after they swallowed their pride and admitted the overreach did the athletes truly respond to the call - now without the burden on their backs - raining golds all over the place.

Interestingly, I have to credit South Park for teaching me "O Canada." ...bizarre where you pick things up sometimes.

Posted by: trident420 | March 1, 2010 11:02 AM
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As a Canadian living in Vancouver, I did feel uncomfortable with that phrase. Although probably as much from the association with the muscular 'own this city'

Ultimately, I think that it was good leadership for our young athletes. It lent permission to step outside of a more restricting national character.

It was a bit outrageous and it was not fully met. It has now been rejigged.

I believe that we now "Own The Gold"

Posted by: alan_YVR | March 1, 2010 10:15 AM
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Oh, what a surprise, a US management consultant putting in her two cents.

Perhaps we should have used something like 'shock and awe' instead. That would have made us all feel good.

Point the finger at your own 'thought leadership' before you point it at mine, America.

Posted by: thetroubleboys | March 1, 2010 10:05 AM
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Katherine, check it out. Canada did own the podium - more golds than the bloated and militaristic US (slogan: Own the World)and third highest medal total with about one-tenth the population of the US!
What would failure look like?

Posted by: Davidd1 | March 1, 2010 9:59 AM
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They DID "own the podium."

I heard Oh Canada so many times that I finally learned the lyrics!

Posted by: DonRitchie | March 1, 2010 9:30 AM
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I am a Canadian and very happy our athletes did so well. However, I agree that winning sometimes overshadows the great many performances by athletes from all over the world. Look at the young skier who still did a 1.5 km race with broken ribs and a punctured lung, that is an athlete!
Own the podium was a bit of a dopey title, but the goal was not. I don't think any Canadian dared to hope we would win a gold let alone win as well as we did.
I am sure we will be knocked off our perch shortly, that is the way it goes. But for one day it is nice to do so well.
Congratulations to all athletes and visitors for making it a memorable time for Vacncouver.

Posted by: rft7gf9D | March 1, 2010 8:50 AM
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What an odd article. Canada set an all-time record for the number of gold medals won by a nation. They were third overall in medal count, despite a significantly smaller population than the two countries with more medals and many of the countries with fewer medals.

"Own the Podium" appears to have helped Canada achieve something historical and out-compete the competition.

Katherine doesn't know what she is talking about. Her leadership in the area of good leadership is quite lacking.

Posted by: neptoon10 | March 1, 2010 7:46 AM
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Does the IOC officially discourage media coverage of medal counts by nation?

Posted by: rjma1 | March 1, 2010 7:31 AM
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Why is it such a pain to report an offensive post in the WaPo. Why can't one just flag it with a quick keystroke?

Authorotativeauthoritarian should be banned

Posted by: taid | March 1, 2010 3:27 AM
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The Olympics claims to be about celebrating the human spirit or whatever, but in reality it's a forum for the tackiest kind of nationalist breast-beating.

Adolf Hitler notoriously set out to make the games a nationalist propaganda fest, so all the patriotic medal-counters can trace their intellectual lineage to him.

By the way, it's a bit rich to hear an American accusing Canada of trumpeting its desire to "own the podium". The US is notorious for doing that. I'd say they're the worst, but maybe Russia is as bad, and North Korea and the old East Germany.

Glad to see so many here share my view of olympic nationalism.

Posted by: kevrobb | March 1, 2010 2:06 AM
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Hey, the slogan apparently worked for Canada.
Canada did not win a single gold medal in either of the two previous Olympic games it hosted. In fact, until now, Canada was the ONLY nation never to win a gold medal in its own Olympics.
I don't think they "came up short" at all. Didn't you see them celebrate when their athletes won?

I do agree with APROGRESSIVEINDEPENDENT about NBC's coverage - Ever since the 1996 Atlanta games, their focus on American Gold Medal winners deprives us of seeing other fine athletes. Had NBC covered games prior to 1996, we never would have learned how Nadia Comeneci pronounces her name - (they wouldn't have interviewed her) or seen Teofilo Stevenson win gold in boxing. (because the American was eliminated earlier). I miss ABC.

Posted by: jnik | March 1, 2010 1:58 AM
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The media in this country is far more super nationalistic than Canadians. "Owning the podium" seems all but the official or unofficial motto of the media. NBC's coverage is extremely nationalistic.

Interesting how the BBC medal table showed China won the Summer Olympics and Canada the Winter Olympics, by winning the most gold medals. Perhaps many foreigners consider coming in first more important than coming in second or third, which could be a reflection of the educational system in the United States.

Anyway, the Olympics have all but been ruined with rampant nationalism, commercialism and professional athletes. The only hope is to go back to some semblance of the original Olympics, which seemed to more primarily honor individual athletes.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | March 1, 2010 12:53 AM
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The country that hosts the Olympics nearly always wins more medals at its own Olympics than it won at the previous games, or will win at the next Olympic games. The record speaks for itself.

And that means the fix is in.

Posted by: screwjob2 | March 1, 2010 12:08 AM
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what ever are you talking about. didn't canada win the most gold medals of any country in the vancouver winter olypmics. are you aware of what that really means. canada has 30 million people. the u.s. has 300 million people, which is ten times more folk than canada. i would say given its size and its number of gold medals, canada lived up to its motto in a big way. get off its case.

Posted by: brigidquinn | March 1, 2010 12:05 AM
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I fear the overt nationalism which has over shadowed the Olympic movement in recent years will destroy it's lofty values. Clearly the IOC has lost it's way and governments paying 'prize money' for athletes winning medals is corrupt.

I'm not naive enough to think we can go back to the 'amateur' days but it would serve us better.

Posted by: RichardinPasadena | March 1, 2010 12:04 AM
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