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9 Leadership Lessons from Joseph Schooling

Joseph Schooling

Nothing has created more buzz during the Rio Olympics than Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling, who wowed everyone by beating his childhood hero Michael Phelps at the 100m butterfly race, and taking home Singapore’s first Olympic medal.

Like any other athlete, Joseph has had his fair share of ups and downs, but these didn’t stop him from reaching the top. He woke up early to train, braved cold weather and even colder pools, shrugged off pain and gave up his comfortable life in Singapore to achieve his dreams.

Joseph’s journey to success is truly inspiring, and we can pick up some learnings from him which we can adopt as leaders (or aspiring leaders) in the workplace.

1. Set yourself steep goals
Joseph was only six years old when he decided he wanted to become an Olympian. It’s a big dream for a kid, especially for a kid from a small country like Singapore. But knowing that his goal was ambitious helped him push himself even harder to achieve it.

At work, it’s easy to set goals that are easy to achieve, because of our fear of failure. But by doing this, we miss the opportunity to discover more about ourselves and our abilities, by pushing ourselves to our limits. Aim for a higher target and push yourself to reach your own high expectations.

2. It’s all about discipline
As an athlete, discipline is the name of the game. During training, Joseph stuck to a strict schedule, a strict diet, and even an stricter programme. Challenging as it was for a college student to miss parties and pass on a large meal of burger and fries, he did it all for the love of swimming and his dream to bring home an Olympic medal.

Today’s workplaces allow for increased flexibility, but the work still needs to get done. Even if you’re allowed to arrive at work by 11am and leave at 3pm, you’ve still got to achieve your goals and complete your work to the best of your ability. Discipline is everything when it comes to managing your workload, your time, and your people. A great leader knows how to discipline himself, but also ensures their direct reports can push themselves, too.

3. Fail with a smile on your face
During the 2012 London Olympics, officials told Joseph – just minutes before competing – that he couldn’t use some of his swimming gear, because of branding issues. At the time, the then-17-year-old said on his Twitter page that the change rocked his focus, and affected his swim time, although “he wasn’t making excuses”. He was upset and annoyed, but decided to just get on with it and work towards the next Olympic Games.

At some point, we will all face failures and disappointments – whether they’re brought on by others or ourselves. But it’s how you handle failure and disappointment that separates the men from the boys. Instead of moaning about it and letting it affect you long-term, review what happened, ask yourself where things went wrong, and figure out a way to fix it or ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future. Accepting failure and problem-solving is key for good leaders.

4. Take a risk and make sacrifices
Leaving home and moving to the US to train is not an easy thing for a 14-year-old boy to do. Being far away from family, friends and a familiar environment and culture was difficult for young Joseph, but he knew that if he didn’t take the risk, he wouldn’t achieve his dreams.

In the workplace – and often with business in general – the best results stem from taking the biggest risks. Don’t be reckless (calculate your risks!) but don’t hold back. If you think you can achieve something that’s never been done before for your company, why not go for it? It’s hard to make sacrifices and take risks, but the value it can return can be so worth it.

5. Always stay humble
It’s gotta be tempting to strut around like a King after beating three incredible swimming legends, but Joseph has kept his feet firmly on the ground after his incredible win in Rio. In fact, he told reporters, “I’m not a superstar, I’m just that kid who beat Phelps one time”.

No matter how successful you become, or how many times you make the right decisions and take the right risks, don’t let it go to your head. A certain level of arrogance might be tolerated if you are a really successful global leader, but typically you’re going to want to appear confident, but humble. Just because you’re on the right track now doesn’t mean you’ll stay there, and it also doesn’t automatically ensure the respect of your direct reports. That needs to be earned, and being a strong, humble leader is a long-term journey.

6. Keep your eye on the prize
One of the most important factors that took Joseph to victory was that he never lost sight of his goal. From the little kid who dreamt of being an Olympic swimmer, to the teenager who spent hours training in the pool, until he qualified as an Olympian, Joseph only had a thing in mind.

If you want to reach your goals in the workplace, always be mindful of everything you do. Consider all factors that may have an effect on your plans and remember what the bigger picture is and how badly you want it.

7. Drive inspiration from others
Joseph has repeatedly said that Michael Phelps has had the biggest impact on his swimming career. As a young athlete he idolised Phelps, and dreamt of racing alongside him. When they met, Joseph asked him for advice and took his pointers with gusto. He saw how Phelps made history, and used this as inspiration to make a name for himself.

It’s always a good idea to find someone to look up to at work. In fact, your mentor doesn’t need to work in the same place as you, they just need to be someone who will encourage, advise and push you to do your best. Other leaders are the best source of inspiration for aspiring ones

8. Appreciate those around you
After winning in Rio, Joseph didn’t miss the chance to thank his family, friends and supporters for the support they’ve given him all throughout his journey. There were even videos featuring his helper – who he calls his second mum – and he was also extremely happy to be invited back to his school to meet fellow Singaporeans in different events organised just for him.

Once you reach the top, don’t become a stranger to those who supported and helped you on your way up. Appreciate them and what they have done to contribute to your success. At the end of the day, whether you stay on top or you end up falling, they will be the same people who will stick by your side, so take good care of them.

9. When you dream, dream big!
As an athlete, the Olympics is the biggest dream you can have – even though it’s one of the hardest to attain. Joseph dreamt and then worked hard to turn it into a reality. Sure, a certain amount of inherent talent helped, but that Olympic gold dream was his biggest driver.

At work, don’t settle for a junior or mid-level position if you believe you have a capability to go further. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen fast (in fact, it almost never does) but if you let your bosses know where you want to get to in your career, they will work with you to ensure you reach your dream.

Want more inspiration like this? Look to our Career Centre for articles on leadership, work life and career management. 

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