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Becoming a Great Leader

How to Earn Your Place at the Business Olympics

You may not realise it, but you’ve been training for the Business Olympics since you began your business journey! Stick with me while I explain.

To perform at your best in your business, you should consider treating yourself and your business like an Olympic team. You’re the coach or the leader, and your business is the athlete. When you start your business, you’re a novice or an amateur, and you’re likely on a steep learning curve. The idea of getting your business to the Olympics means experiencing a gradual progression until you become a master at what you do. At this point, you are no longer an amateur or a novice - you’re a pro.


Great leaders build winning teams

Many small business owners don’t see themselves as leaders, but here’s the thing: we’re all leaders. You’re already a leader, whether at the kitchen table, your local sports club, charity event, or board room meeting.

Businesses that deliver consistently exceptional customer experiences often have the best leaders. So, whether you’re a solo business owner or have a small team, knowing what it takes to lead yourself, your clients, and that team can translate into business growth, high rates of customer satisfaction, and positive employee culture.

Similarly, an athlete might set a goal to win a gold medal in the next Olympics. With the help of a great coach, everything they do between the time they set that goal puts them on the path to success. It’s deliberate. If they didn’t focus like that, what do you think would happen? They might get injured. They might not learn about the latest tactics or research. They might not have the right frame of mind. They might not push themselves as much or train as hard, and in a worst-case scenario, they might choose to give up or be forced to because of injury.

The fact is that Olympians don’t show up and expect to win without regular, consistent training and strategies. They work with coaches, peers, physiotherapists, nutritionists and so on to help them perform at optimum levels and continuously strive to achieve new personal bests. They review their own performance and that of their competition consistently to innovate and learn ways to improve and succeed.

Interestingly, applying similar tactics to your leadership skills could help you find your place on the podium of the Business Olympics.



What are the factors that influence poor leadership?

Studies show that small business failures are very often associated with poor leadership. Research also shows that it’s not any one skill that causes business failure, but a myriad of them, depending on the individuals involved.

Often, the last thing a solo or small business owner will invest in is developing themselves and their leadership skills. Worse still, many tend to invest in systems and technology before examining the customer journey, which can be a costly mistake.

Small business owners can be constrained financially, which impacts their ability to invest in developing themselves. However, organisations across the board are failing to develop their employees’ soft skills, so it’s not just isolated to small business owners.

In the Future of Jobs Survey, conducted by the World Economic Forum in 2020, 94 per cent of business leaders reported that they expected employees to pick up new skills on the job. According to data gathered d through the survey, formal upskilling tends to be more closely focused on technology use and design skills, while emotional intelligence and leadership skills are less frequently targeted in that formal reskilling provision.

I often see evidence of this in my work. Many business owners will show up every day, and instead of training for gold, they’re stuck. The reason is that they’ve already come so far on their journey; they’ve got their business off the ground, and it’s operational. It’s not doing poorly, but it’s not doing amazingly either. Why is this? It’s a result of their leadership development plateauing.

At the outset of embarking on any mission or journey, enthusiasm alone can carry us a long way, but we get tired and start plodding along after a while. If you’re not managing yourself and your business, it will also be plodding along.

How regular training will help you become a winning leader

Let’s go back to the Olympics for a minute. Like an Olympic athlete, performance improves with practice. Similarly, in business, the skills and abilities that worked when you started out on your mission for gold are unlikely to be the same ones that put you on the podium

Usually, broad abilities such as common sense and intelligence will have helped you develop the skills and accomplish the tasks you need to get started in business. Simply look at what you know now that you didn’t know before starting your journey as an entrepreneur, and you’ll know what I mean.

This is where your leadership skills come back into play. A coach or leader will need to continuously learn to help you bring out the best in yourself. They need to know the right questions to ask at the right time. They need to demonstrate exceptional leadership skills like listening, empathy, positive attitude, accountability, respect. They will help you with performance management.

When the business’s muscles are not being flexed, stretched and pushed to their limits, they will not get to the next level.

Here’s a thought worth reflecting on: Is your business being coached for the Olympics or a stroll in the park? Investing in your leadership skills can take you up a level and help you performance-manage yourself. Think of it like starting your training for the gold medal! Perhaps your current ability is that of someone strolling in the park. Or maybe you’re already running marathons, and if so, that’s great! But you’ll still need to keep training, learning and getting support to enter the Olympics!

Don’t be hard on yourself if you find you’ve just been strolling in the park. Part of developing your leadership skills is becoming more self-aware and heightening your emotional intelligence. While there are specific characteristics that many leaders naturally display, you may need to work on the rest.

For example, leaders who demonstrate honesty, integrity and empathy will connect better with their clients (and colleagues, if they have any). It’s even been proven that these three attributes alone contribute to employee commitment and satisfaction. And if you’ve been following me for a while now, you’ll know that employee and customer experience are very closely aligned.

Becoming an effective leader requires practice, dedication, and commitment. Constantly ask yourself (and others around you) questions about how you’re doing. Ask for honest critique about which leadership skills you need to master in your business. A very useful technique is to visualise your skills levels, where you want to get to, and the steps required to get you there.

To upskill, we need to stretch ourselves continuously, and the best way to do that is to introduce increasing levels of difficulty. If you’re not sure where or how to begin, seek out a thought leader who can give you a curriculum or challenge you on your progress.

Another aspect of this is that for small business owners to effectively performance-manage themselves, they need to be equally good at many system-oriented management practices, such as improving efficiency, measuring and controlling operational benchmarks. Often, those things come with a ‘how to’ guide, or there are things you can Google and apply instantly. Soft skills, not so much.

Developing soft skills and behaviours focusing on leadership engagement, training, and customer interactions can result in improved business performance and increased customer satisfaction.



The 10 most important leadership skills for a small business owner

There are 10 specific leadership skills that are vital to small business owners hoping to grow their business and deliver exceptional customer and employee experiences. They are as follows:

Emotional Intelligence:

Having a good understanding of our own emotions and recognising those of others helps us communicate, connect, and develop relationships with those around us.

Growth Mindset:

A growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities and character are things you can cultivate and grow through intentional efforts, strategies and help from others. This mindset helps you realise that you can learn as much from your mistakes as from your successes.

ctive Listening:

Honing your listening skills helps you enhance your relationships because you are fully attentive to clients’ or colleagues’ comments and responses. This skill makes others feel valued and respected.


Empathy helps us understand other people’s feelings much better, and it helps us build connections with them. It requires intuition. When we demonstrate empathy, we show others we care, and we create a positive and productive environment that enables us to understand each other better.

Advanced Communication Skills:

Advanced communication goes beyond talking and listening. It factors in empathy, how we process information, how we perceive and learn information, the choice of words we use when speaking, our body language, the tone of voice we apply. It even includes cultural differences, expectations that we set or others have, experiences that we create from all of the above, perspectives and valuing other people’s perspectives, communication style, and even personalities.

Problem Solving and Decision Making:

As a leader, you are responsible for solving problems and making decisions every day. These skills require creativity and strategic thinking.


This skill permits people to unambiguously know where you stand, making it easy for others to take you seriously without it being in a threatening way. You are transparently honest and clear about your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and needs in a very respectful manner.


As a business leader, you get to decide daily the level of detail you will focus on today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year to meet your goals. If you get stuck in ALL the detail, you may miss what is critical to getting essential jobs done and, unintentionally, delay getting to the next level. Delegating and outsourcing can help you to avoid this.


As a business owner, your journey and transformation to achieve your dreams can be as bumpy and challenging as that of your clients. As the hero of your own story, you will need to be resilient when things get difficult so you can get up and carry on after setbacks.


To be successful requires self-management. To perform at your best constantly requires you to manage yourself, your performance, attitude, behaviours, skills, and boundaries. That self-management can be practised and improved with coaching and mentoring.

Let me ask you, which leadership skill do you need to develop the most to get yourself on track for the Business Olympics?



The best leaders need strong support

If you need some help or support on your business and leadership journey, you can download the free performance management guide or feel free to reach out by contacting me here.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, please check out the customer experience book I’ve co-authored, entitled Customer Experience 4 (CX4)

Thank you for your time, and best of luck with your Business Olympics journey. I’m rooting for you!

Deirdre Martin is a business mentor that specialises in brand, marketing, sales and customer experience. She is a keynote speaker, business award winner and bestselling business author. For a FREE business breakthrough call, go to Deirdre’s calendar and find a time that works for you. Follow on LinkedIn! 

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