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Anton Franckeiss

ASK Europe

Managing Director

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Lessons from Olympians: Seb Coe, the ultimate expert-turned-leader


The concept of an expert becoming a leader is scarcely unexplored territory.

But the focus is usually on the skills that the erstwhile expert needs to acquire and demonstrate as they move from one role – and mind-set – to another.
There are other attributes that are just as critical to the success, not just of the fledgling leader, but also of the organisation that they work for, however.
Experts are, of course, valued for their knowledge, but also for their ability to understand how their expertise can be applied effectively and their willingness to guide others to a similar understanding.
If we were to consider organisations as stews, we would understand that the real value of the sage is in its ability to bring out the flavour of the other ingredients.
Part of our definition of leadership is “a relationship, in which a person accepts responsibility for their own fate and for that of others in relation to achievement of the task.” The best experts (and leaders) are also team players, even if their role is elevated in some way above that of their team-mates.
A topical example here is Lord Coe, former Olympian and president of the Organising Committee for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Coe’s engagement with and expertise in athletics are not in question, but the career path that he subsequently chose also played an important role in getting him to where he is today.
High-profile positions with the Sports Council, International Association of Athletics Federations and Amateur Athletic Association (among others) plus a parallel career in politics have all undoubtedly played their part.
Thorough preparation and time
For instance, having joined the Conservative Party at the age of 19, Coe served as an MP for only one term, but was also a parliamentary private secretary and then leader of the Opposition William Hague’s chief of staff.
But the determination and strategic sense that Coe demonstrated on the athletics track – rival Steve Ovett described him as “bullet-proof” – have been equally visible outside of the sports arena too.
As Coe himself said in a Director magazine interview in 2010:
“Most people thought that one minute I was in sport and the next I was in politics and, in terms of dates, that is the way it looks. I went from the world championships to, a week later, being in front of a selection committee for a constituency. Although it looked like a swift transition, it was a very long process. I knew it was something I wanted to do by my mid-teens."
While Coe’s excellent reputation for sports administration has undoubtedly been boosted by his fame, it has also been helped by the skills that he has acquired throughout his adult life. These range from media handling and networking to political understanding in both a narrow and a broad sense, and public speaking.
His personal values, which include trying to encourage the nation to take up sport, have also been closely aligned with those of the administrative and governing bodies on which he has served.
In addition, Coe’s opening ceremony speech was passionate, inclusive and in line with the ethos of all sportsmen and women. His Olympic bid presentation has likewise been described as one of the best speeches ever given to the International Olympics Committee.
As such, the Director interview offers important lessons for HR and talent managers: Coe makes it crystal clear that to be successful requires thorough preparation and takes time.
Likewise, he refers to the crucial importance of coaching, even though it is not a path that he has chosen to pursue himself because he doesn’t “think it was a burning passion in me to coach”.
The power of engagement
But it might also be worth reflecting on the fact that no single organisation has groomed or guided Coe’s career. Ultimately, it was he who got himself into his current position(s) by pursuing his own ambitions rather than those set out in a leadership strategy document somewhere.
Amanda Goodall, a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, has, for one, researched the impact that technical knowledge has on leadership ability across a number of sectors. She has concluded that in-depth industry knowledge is critical:
“Most hospitals in the United States and the United Kingdom are led by managers with no medical training. Yet I found that the most outstanding hospitals in the US were led by CEOs who are doctors. Similarly, the most successful universities in the world are led by presidents who are also highly respected academics.”
In reviewing the historic data of Formula 1 racing teams, Goodall found that the most successful employed team managers who had originally been drivers or mechanics themselves.
The combination of understanding core elements of the specific ‘business’ and complete engagement with it proved to be powerful and was found to encourage such individuals to acquire additional leadership skills, which include inspiring others.
Identifying, promoting and developing talent is a multi-faceted discipline, however. This means that HR and talent managers need to be mindful of a number of effective indicators of potential that tend to be overlooked.
These include an individual’s attitude to self, others and the organisation; personal behaviour; alignment with organisational values; ability to learn in different ways and response to stress.
Such considerations are important because, while natural ability is crucial, engagement tends to be a better indicator of success than either ambition or aspiration. Ambition alone is a particularly poor indicator of actual outcomes, while without engagement, even highly aspirant, capable candidates stand a low chance of winning.
But the importance of having good relationship skills and being able to build a rapport with others must also be taken into account.
Becoming an expert leader
So the key question in light of all of this becomes, if being able to develop talent effectively depends on an ability to ensure that individuals remain engaged, are they likely to be more inspired by – and trust – leaders that have directly relevant expertise or ones that have general management skills?
Moreover, is our tendency to assume that it is difficult for experts to become leaders hampering the chances of leaders to become experts?
As Cass’ Goodall points out: “To be an expert leader, one also has to be an expert manager. But we’re accustomed to seeing Fortune 500 firms choosing charismatic general managers for senior leadership positions over core-business experts. We’re also used to seeing CEOs flit back and forth across industries, becoming jacks-of-all-trades, masters of none. Might our organisations be paying the price?”
As a final point, it might be worth noting that football’s most revered leaders – the likes of Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Bill Shankly – were all not only expert managers, but also former players and coaches.
As the match is so obviously won by the people who are on the pitch, the logic of employing managers with expertise of the game in order to provide coaching, inspiration and strategy is apparent.
That said, an ability to play does not automatically translate into an ability to manage, lead and inspire. Mastery on the pitch must be accompanied by a concomitant mastery of player handling.
Bobby Charlton, for example, was a finer footballer than either Ferguson or Shankly ever were, but in the end he proved a poorer manager. Charlton, it seems, wasn’t quite as skilful at playing the men as he was at playing the ball.

Anton Franckeiss is managing director of learning and development consultancy, ASK Europe.

2 Responses

  1. Communication skills

    If we are focusing on Seb Coe as a leader here, the one thing he still has to learn as a leader is how to look at the audience when he is speaking.

  2. Continuous Learning Develops Gold Standard Leadership

     I agree – what we have seen clearly demonstrated by Seb Coe over the years is a sense of personal responsibility for his path through life, combined with a determination to keep learning from all the available sources.  Too often individuals think that their former prowess will be sufficient, so they don’t bother to take the time to understand the additional skills that will make them outstanding leaders, able to develop those around them and inspire others to find the very best of themselves.  People on our programmes often ask if leadership really can be learned or whether you need to be born a leader.  Whilst, as this article suggests, there are undoubtedly some people born with the kind of spirit and charisma that seem to elevate them into leadership roles, I believe that most of us have the facility to learn the skills and behaviours that will make us effective leaders, should we so choose. 

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Anton Franckeiss

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