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What an Olympic gymnast has in common with a global opportunity leader

By Marianne Haahr

Simone Biles is a 19 year old gymnast who has just tumbled-turned to Olympic gold at Rio. Part of the USA Olympic team, dubbed the Final Five, Biles is also the most decorated American female gymnast in World Championships history, with a total of fourteen medals, ten of them gold. And now she has her first Olympic gold to add to the collection. This show-stopping gymnast has undoubtedly what many would call an ‘opportunity mindset’ – she is hardwired to succeed.

Many people will look at Biles’s finesse on the gymnasium floor and assume she possesses some remarkable genetic trait which marks her out for medal-winning performances. And that might be the case. But Biles’s family story is remarkable for how relatable it is to so many others who might otherwise believe they are destined to fail. When Biles was five years old, she was adopted by her maternal grandfather and his wife, after her mother was deemed unfit to care for her and her siblings due to drug and alcohol addiction. It is a family history that could all too easily have defined Biles, but as she says herself: “When I was younger, I thought every kid was adopted because that’s all I’ve known. I have everything I need, so I never felt the need to have answers for what happened.” The rest, as they say, is history. Biles got into gymnastics at the age of six, and never looked back.

Yet I was interested to read a TIME profile about Biles which revealed a defining moment when she was 13 years old that moved her into top-tier gymnastics. The story goes that Biles was so overwhelmed in preparation for a competition that she fell during every event. The USA national team coordinator invited her to the training camp and gave her a simple but powerful message: focus on your talent, not your failures. Biles hasn’t lost a single all-round competition since. It suggests that Biles learned the hard way how to unlock the right mind-set – and it’s a lesson she’s put into unstoppable action ever since.

So what has Biles and her remarkable achievements got in common with the kinds of opportunity leaders we work with? We know from our most recent Global Opportunity Report that opportunity leaders share some common characteristics. We also know that these are things which can be learned, just like Biles did.

Opportunity leaders are systems thinkers and they are capable of spotting the right mix of partners – they are able to see how individual projects, initiatives and acts can influence entire systems. They see the big picture and active try and change it. Performing in a team means that Biles has both a collegiate and individual ambition. She can see the big picture – the medal haul for the USA – and her role within the Final Five ‘system’. It is a constant process of small acts, building up to big wins. If she can perfect her part, she can change entire outcomes.

Opportunity leaders also possess the courage to challenge conventional thinking, and they dare to disrupt traditional ways of working. In gymnastics, the field was blown open in 1976 when 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci performed in the uneven bars event and was awarded a perfect (and previously unheard-of) score of 10. Every gymnast since then has been forced to disrupt the field in any conceivable way they can. Biles certainly isn’t one to rest of her laurels – she has a signature flip named after her, a tumbling pass on the floor.

Opportunity leaders spend more time on the edges of their landscape than at the core. It is at the edges where new solutions emerge and innovation happens. When you live on the edge, you can better see new markets, new sectors, new players – new opportunities. Olympic athletes, just like Biles, focus on the edge of their landscapes. They are heads-up, stretching towards success and striving beyond the competition. It’s a classic winning mindset – focus on the goal ahead and not the here-and-now.

Whilst we might not all be capable of bring home a clutch of Olympic medals from Rio this month, we are all capable of being opportunity leaders in our own field. And that’s worth a gold medal in any field.

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