Think about the most important business presentation you have ever had to make. Then multiply its importance 100 times. Now you know how Sebastian Coe felt when he rose to present London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic games to the International Olympic Committee in Singapore in July 2005.
It probably helped that the former athlete was used to high-pressure situations – Olympic finals, for example. Years of preparation and hard work had led to those few most intense moments.
Preparation was key to Lord Coe’s success that day in Singapore as well. That, and the realisation that only a personal appeal would persuade the IOC that London’s bid was stronger than those being made by its main rivals, Paris and Madrid.
“[These presentations] are choreographed to within an inch of their lives, but they have to be personal,” he explains. The planning paid off.
“It’s those thousands of private moments that go to the one big public moment, whether it’s in business, in sport or delivering a great speech across the despatch box [in parliament].”
Now 52, Lord Coe still looks track-ready fit and youthful – although he confesses that, these days, he is “12 or 13 pounds” heavier than when he was competing.
As chairman of the London 2012 games he has just over three years left to get everything ready. He is working flat out, but with the staying power that helped him break records and win titles through a long and successful athletics career.
Sporting heroes command our attention. They are the ultimate elite performers, displaying grace under pressure. It is tempting to believe that they have something to teach us, beyond advice on how to run faster or jump higher.
But do they? Lord Coe is the latest sporting great to offer insights in book form* for a wider, non-sporting readership. But while the contents may be of interest to business people and others, the author had a personal reason for wanting to get the book published.
He had started work on it with his father, Peter, his coach during most of his time in athletics. But before the text could be completed Coe senior fell ill. He died just after his son had flown out to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing games last summer. Now Lord Coe has completed the book. It is dedicated to his father.
Peter Coe was an extraordinary coach. He drove his son extremely hard, rejecting conventional wisdom and traditional training methods. As an engineer, he had started from first principles. Why go on endless, slow training runs when the aim of a middle distance runner is to become faster? Lots of sprints, repeated with minimal rest periods in between, helped develop the famous Coe turn of speed. “You’re killing him,” a concerned onlooker once told him. “Yes, yes, I’m killing him – right the way to the top,” he replied.
But surely Lord Coe does not advocate adopting such a robust management style with every employee?
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to paint this man as a complete psychopath – he wasn’t,” he says. “He was incredibly calm and remarkably resilient. The consistency of his mental approach was something that was hugely helpful to me. There were never great highs, never great lows.”
As he writes in his book: “His view was always that good coaching is about building in obsolescence: the more you work with somebody the less you should be needed over time.”
How can readers of the book translate some of these thoughts into the workplace? Perhaps Lord Coe’s most helpful observations have to do with competition, and what it takes to be a winner.
Sports fans will remember the wonderful rivalry Lord Coe had with Britain’s other middle distance greats, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. It was Ovett in particular who helped drive Coe on to new heights. A bit like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, or Unilever and Procter & Gamble, Coe and Ovett sparred and parried for many years. They swapped world records, and battled it out for Olympic gold over 800 and 1500 metres.
“I would never have admitted this 30 years ago,” Lord Coe says, “but of course the rivalry helped me.” The media loved it too. “I think you always need that competitive impetus,” he adds.
“Of course, good organisations can create that hunger to be better the next year than you are now. But there is a primeval instinct about somebody snapping at your heels, and it doesn’t hurt.”
What characterises the “winning mind” of the book’s title? Winners are relentless, Lord Coe believes. They are always striving to get better at what they do. And they are robust. You would have to be, to absorb the sort of comments Peter Coe was heard to make, publicly, about his son when things went wrong. But Lord Coe never took the criticism personally. “Oh no,” he says, his eyes narrowing slightly, “you crave criticism, you absolutely crave it. I do now.”
Winners are not “normal”. “People who wake up on a Monday morning and at the end of the week they’ve covered 120 miles on the road and spent hours and hours in the gym and at training sessions, to the point where they can barely see straight – they are not by and large normal people,” he says. “People who watch competitors closely find that difficult to come to terms with, but that is actually the nature of competition; that is the nature of the people who deliver those performances.”
In some ways The Winning Mind is a fairly conventional business book, in that it contains the occasional statement of the obvious and the odd terrible sentence, for example: “There are times when there is a need to dig deep and find another gear – while never losing sight of the bigger picture.” (Well, he did say he craved criticism.)
But it also succeeds in presenting an intimate view of one of sport’s great competitors, in a way that many readers will find highly stimulating.
Lord Coe does not mention the incident in the book, but his attitude was best borne out by his reaction after winning gold in the 1500 metres at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. Looking up at the press box, which contained all the experts who had written him off for months, he screamed out a rhetorical question: “Who says I’m finished?!”
“Yes, my mother barely spoke to me for three days afterwards,” Lord Coe admits. “She thought it was the most appalling display.”
*The Winning Mind: Developing Inspirational Leadership and Delivering Winning Results, by Sebastian Coe (Headline Books, £14.99)
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