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LEADERSHIP ACADEMY

Orchestrating the Olympic finale

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Contact, communication and feedback are vital to dancers - and managers.

This summer, I led a double life. As well as being a mild-mannered executive, I landed a role in the Olympic Closing Ceremony. I was one of 100 people twirling into the stadium to build a 3D jigsaw of John Lennon’s head.

Naturally, it was a remarkable experience, but it was also an unexpected lesson in leadership. Because for the first time in years I was in charge of nothing at all. And this gave me an excellent reminder of good leadership communication.

We were working over an area the size of the Olympic Stadium, over radio, which meant we were pretty far from the dance captain; I often couldn’t see him at all. So whenever he took a moment to gather us for a motivational talk, I noticed that we sat with our mouths slightly open as if to make sure we caught all his words. The longer we were cut off from him, the more critical we got, and the more we filled the communication vacuum with gossip. Yet it took little to engage and focus us again. And we’d chew over a few sentences incessantly for the hour’s train ride home.

“Go that way! No, that way!” said the radio. But we couldn’t see what “that way” was. I remember shouting “which way?”, my words carried away by the wind, leaving me stuck between my desire to please and the inability to do so.

The frustration reminded me of a game where a player is given an abstract picture and tasked with getting another person to draw a copy, using only spoken instructions. It’s hard, and you only succeed if you first create shared points of reference, then repeatedly check for understanding. And this is what eventually worked for our captain. Over the radio came his voice: “OK, I’m by the tower, can you all see me? (Check.) This is what we’ll call 12 o’clock. (Points one way.) Let’s use the terms ‘clockwise’ and ‘anti-clockwise’. Do you all understand that? Please raise your hand if you do.” Everyone raised their hand.

At one point, it became clear a planned manoeuvre was going to be hellishly difficult. I tried, tripped, and felt a visceral spark of fear that I couldn’t deliver what was asked of me. So in our next break, I mustered the courage to talk to him. I was unsure whether he was going to welcome input. I feared I’d be seen as a trouble-maker.

Happily, of course, he thanked me. At the start of the next session, he acknowledged a few of us had given feedback and was going to try something different as a result.

Does it seem a little pathetic to doubt that I’d be welcomed? It was a forceful reminder to me of the confidence it takes for junior people to speak up, and that you can’t assume frontline input will reach your desk. Unless you’ve just hired a shouty executive with minimal dance training.

Caroline Webb is the CEO of Seven Shift, a bespoke advisory company that works with clients to strengthen their ability to lead and inspire change.

How to engage with your staff: Olympic style

  • The time spent with your staff is even more valuable than you probably realise. Little and often is better than impressive one-off long meetings
  • Don’t assume people understand what’s in your head, however clear it is to you. Check their interpretation to make sure you both see it the same
  • Make it easy for staff to give you input and ideas. Don’t underestimate how much it takes for them to step forward and suggest something

 

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