A Leader Among Us Can Make All the Difference

February 17th, 2010 by Tom Steitz

Some of you may have seen yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that looked at Olympic athletes of years past and highlighted what they have done and are doing today.  I was please to see former Nordic Combined Skier Ryan Heckman among them.

While Ryan never took home an Olympic medal, he took away – and gave – much more to the Nordic Combined team. He emerged as a leader when we needed it most; in fact, if there’s one athlete I credit with the turnaround that started more than two decades ago, it’s Ryan.

Ryan joined the U.S. team within the first few years that I took over and he was a game changer.  Many executives hear me talk about the importance of cultural fit and finding the right talent to embody the organization and culture.  Ryan did that for us.  While many athletes before him were satisfied with just making the national team, Ryan pushed himself and others for peak performance to be the best possible.  It wasn’t just about being on the team…or even being a national champion (Ryan was multiple national champion in two different disciplines).  Nor was it enough to just make the Olympic team. (Ryan was the youngest Olympian at the 1992 Olympics.)  He wanted the U.S. team to be the best in the world. He lived it.  And, he led it.

Ryan was never the biggest or strongest athlete; in fact, he was the exact opposite, but his beliefs and commitment made him a giant and a true visionary.  He was not afraid to call out unproductive behaviors of either myself and/or his teammates even when it was not the popular thing to do.  He was often ostracized or given the “freeze out” by those athletes who held to the culture of old.

He never expected any more from anyone than he expected from himself.  He gave it all physically and emotionally and was welcomed being judged and evaluated on results and performance based metrics. I learned a lot from his spirit.

When a leader is going to attempt to change an overall culture in an organization, you need an athlete or employee in the corporate setting to model and showcase the desired behaviors.  The leader then needs to hope and pray the executive and/or athlete gets the results to demonstrate how the new culture can drive and produce.  I was lucky enough to have that in Ryan.

It is tough emotionally on these types of employees/athletes who forge ahead into unknown and often unaccepted waters.  Yet, without this kind of franchise player or exemplary executive, real sustained culture change is very difficult to attain.

A leader cannot change the culture until you have a believer to follow. The current Nordic Combined team has three guys in the top six (Todd, Bill and Johnny), who are reaping the benefits of the door that Ryan opened.

Thanks Ryan for all your contributions over the years.

Before I sign off, I’ll let you all in on a little secret: if the Nordic Combined team does great things in the team event next week, it will have very little do with the physical training or technical competence; it will be because of the culture created in this team years ago.

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