For sports fans, the late Jesse Owens is truly an inspiration. His appearance at the 1936 summer Olympics where he was the first American to win four gold medals propelled him to international fame. I have enjoyed reading up on Owens’ life and would like to condense some of my findings with you.
No other Olympian had achieved so much in previous Olympics. His success was a major blow to Adolph Hitler, who had hoped to showcase Aryan superiority at the games.
The grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, Owens’ victories were significant on many levels. Perhaps most importantly, it affirmed that an individual’s performance distinguishes one more so than race, religion or national origin.
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Owens won his first final in the 100 meters by edging out teammate Ralph Metcalfe.
The following day, Owens was nearly out of the long jump competition after qualifying began. He fouled on his first two jumps. One of the jumps was a practice run, but officials counted it as an attempt. With just one jump remaining, Luz Long, a German long jumper who was Owens’ toughest competition, introduced himself. Long had the blond hair, blue-eyed look that Hitler so favored, yet Long didn’t buy into the “master race” propaganda that Hitler espoused. He offered a suggestion to Owens. To play it safe, make your mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there. Owens used the advice and qualified on his last jump.
Check out the video tribute Owens here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD_o8ltwETg
Later that afternoon, Long’s fifth jump matched Owens’ 25-10 in the finals. But Owens won the gold medal with a final jump of 26-5½ on his last jump. The first to congratulate Owens was Long.
“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”
Owens’ remarkable story teaches us valuable leadership lessons. While we may never compete in an Olympic event, we can learn from an Olympic icon. Consider these gold medal lessons about leadership.
A gold medal leader rises above negative circumstances. Owens’ humble beginnings did not prevent him from pursuing and achieving his dreams. His achievement proves to the rest of us that the greater the obstacles are the greater the potential for success. Owens once remarked, “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams a reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” Owens embodied that philosophy. His gold medals are a tribute to it. Your past is no contest for your future if your heart is right.
A gold medal leader is teachable. Owens attributes his success as an athlete to his junior high school track coach Charles Riley. Riley believed in Owens and was his source of inspiration, and Owens never forgot it. Many are the leaders today who had someone who believed in them and encouraged them along the way. “One chance is all you need,” Owens once said. A wise leader is a teachable leader. You can’t rightfully expect people to follow you to where you have not trod yourself.
A gold medal leader earns respect. The bond of friendship that was forged during the 1936 Olympic Games with Luz Long illustrates that while they may have been competitors, the bond of friendship was stronger. What took place in Berlin between Luz and Owens transcended sports, it was a lesson to the world in the power of the human spirit to rise above prejudice and hatred. Owens said, “Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Dreams fulfilled are much sweeter when at the end of the day; you have earned the respect of your competitors and not their scorn.
A gold medal leader comes through the fire a better person. A ticker-tape parade awaited Owens upon his return to America. Yet afterward, he had to ride a freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Years passed without proper recognition of his accomplishments. He suffered setbacks in his personal life before making a comeback traveling the world as a goodwill ambassador.
In the end, he kept a proper perspective that is worth taking note of today when he said,” The battles that count are not the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself, the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us- that’s where it’s at.”
As leaders we all have our races to run. Learn from Owens and make it count.
© 2009 Doug Dickerson