The biggest mistakes in business are usually made when leaders react instead of act. Reflexive actions are rarely effective when compared to actions borne out of a well-thought-out strategy.
This is probably the same lesson learned recently by American short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. He set aside everything except training for the past two years. He sacrificed. He worked hard. His goal? Win the same number of medals in the 2006 Olympics as he did in the Salt Lake City games four years ago, including a gold in the 1,500 meters.
But back-to-back gold medals in this race were not in the cards for Ohno. With only 1.5 laps to go in his 13.5 lap semifinal heat, Ohno made a mistake. I winced when I saw it. He made a move that probably wasn't necessary. Watching it, it seemed like a thought floated through his head that played on his ego. And in that blink of an eye, Ohno made a bad choice that not only cost him a gold medal, it totally eliminated him from competing in the finals.
Here's what happened: In the semifinals, the first and second place finishers move on to the final race. Ohno was in second place. He was experienced and fast enough to keep his position, but for some reason he decided to try passing the leader. Whether his move was based in obedience to his coaching, fear that he might finish third, or an ego that needed to be at the front of the pack, we'll never know.
Whatever it was, with only a lap and a half to go, he made an outside move on the leader. Unfortunately, his hand touched the skate of the lead skater, and this threw off his concentration and balance. Ohno lost his rhythm and he fell back to fifth place.
My heart sank for this young man as a singular, blink-of-an-eye choice led to a mistake that ruined his chances to defend his Olympic title.
But as I contemplated his fate, I couldn't help but wonder if Ohno had spent any time thinking about what he might do if he found himself in second place near the end of the semi-final. It was certainly a possibility, so did he have a plan for what to do if he found himself in that situation?
The point of me sharing this story is about having a comprehensive plan and sticking to it. We don't know about Ohno's situation, but we certainly know our own. Think about it: Do you have a comprehensive plan? Do you know what to do if you've been a market leader but suddenly find yourself trailing in second place?
Again, the biggest mistakes in business are usually based in reaction instead of well-thought-out action. Our reflexive actions rarely take into account the intensity of present strengths and weaknesses, not to mention all the other factors surrounding us.
Let me continue with another, albeit much lower profile, sports analogy - my personal tennis game. I'm not a hot shot player by any means, but I certainly enjoy the game. And like any other player, I enjoy winning. But almost every time I break from my fundamentals I'm likely to create my own trouble.
For example, if I try to take advantage of a weak shot by my opponent, such as slamming the ball back on a weak serve, it usually ends up costing me. Instead, if I just play my game and play it well, my opponent will usually make enough mistakes on his own so I end up winning the set.
Again, the moral here is that it's dangerous to improvise without weighing the risks. Just because a competitor makes a move that looks like you'll be left behind, stick to you what you know works, at least for the short term. Your proven formula for success will always be your best bet until you've considered the ripple-effects of your alternatives.
It could be that Ohno is wishing he'd done that in Italy.