The Paralympics and leadership

Written by
Claire Harvey

09 Sep 2016

09 Sep 2016 • by Claire Harvey

I regularly get asked whether my leadership experience helps me to manage the pressures of being a Paralympic athlete or whether being an athlete has helped me be a better leader. The answer is both. 

I firmly believe that leaders can reflect on some important insights from the Paralympics. There is no doubt that the Paralympics provides examples of achievement beyond adversity and just how much people with disabilities can accomplish given the right support, but I think the deeper insights are more subtle. I will try and summarise them here.

The focus on outcome

One big difference between Olympic and Paralympic sport is that you won’t see a uniformity of technique. That’s because every athlete, even those with the same disability and in the same classification, will be unique in their functionality. When I took up athletics, my coach took a lot of time to understand my strengths and weaknesses and then helped me adapt to work within the boundaries of allowable technique to maximise my ability. In leadership, how often do we instruct someone on the outcome required, but also set out the steps we expect to see to get there? I think one of the reasons we see staff start a project full of passion and energy, yet often end it despondent and disengaged is that we have removed their ability to be creative and really own it away from there. There is a big difference between ownership and accountability from an emotional engagement point of view. Agree the outcome required, set the guide ropes & boundaries and then let people develop their own style to deliver it, maximising what they have. That’s what learning to become an athlete in the space of 12 months in two sports that I started fresh last year has given me.


The power of a non-moveable deadline: solution based problem solving & relationships

The GB Women’s sitting volleyball team was created in 2010 – this was our first ever training session as a group of people who had never played the sport beyond a taster session before. With just 2 years to show we could compete at the world’s biggest sporting event it felt Impossible. The thing that frustrated us at the time, but I have grown to understand, was that London 2012 was coming like a steam train; it was a deadline set in stone and we were either going to be ready or we weren’t, and although we didn’t know it, this was our biggest asset. 

It meant that all of our planning and actions had to be based on finding pragmatic and quick solutions to any barriers that we faced. This included relationship breakdowns within the team, practical issues such as finding training, and fast tracking our players to develop their technical and physical abilities. We could never end a meeting without finding a solution. 

We talked honestly and openly about issues so that an effective solution could be found as quickly as possible.  In the corporate world, the best expression I have heard is ‘getting your fish out on the table’. How often do we all go into meetings and talk around things - the real issue (the fish in the drawer) influencing the atmosphere in the room but never being spoken about. It’s not until you get the fish out and deal with it, that the atmosphere shifts and the situation can move forward. 

But these difficult and honest conversations require leaders to move from transactional relationships, in which we only engage with people when we need them, to one where you are constantly building trust and confidence in each other and a shared ethos. Then, as a leader in a team in such a pressured environment as a Paralympic games competition, I experienced first-hand that the team will follow instructions, forgive your mistakes and work with you to give 100% rather than just await instruction and do what is asked of them, even if they typically have a different way of doing things. 

Earlier in the year, we interviewed Claire's London 2012 team mate Martine Wright about combating adversity and living to her power of 7, to read the full interview, click here.