The Magic Of Olympic Motivation

John Blakey
John Blakey
2 April, 2024
forbes featured-image

In my forthcoming book, Force for Good: How to Thrive as a Purpose-Driven Leader, I emphasize the importance of motivation in maximizing leadership performance. In particular, I quote the following formula:


Performance = Motivation × Ability × Opportunity


When I first came across this formula, I realized that I had lived most of my life thinking that Performance = Ability × Opportunity. I had assumed that motivation was a fixed and uniform variable. You get up, you work hard and then you go to sleep. When I got school reports that said I was "easily distracted" in class or seemed to "spend a lot of time giggling with friends," I didn't realize that I was being told that I had poor motivation. I thought my teachers were describing my character and labeling me as lazy. I thought they were talking about my ability. Ironically, this labeling did nothing to help my motivation, which I now realize was the underlying problem. Quite simply, I was bored.

Later in my career, I set up an executive coaching practice with Bill Barry, a former Olympic medalist rower and Olympic coach for Team GB athletes. Through this involvement, I was fortunate to work with medal-winning athletes like Dame Katherine Grainger, Martin Cross and Alan Campbell. As I studied their world, I realized that most of their work was incredibly boring. They spent hours in the gym. They paddled endlessly up and down rivers. They couldn't eat what they wanted and had to be in bed by 10 p.m.

Because of this mind-numbing routine, their coach, Bill, relentlessly focused on their motivation, because he knew how boring their lives could be. He did not call them lazy when they got distracted or missed having some fun. Instead, he made it his job to find out new ways to motivate them. Since working with the Team GB rowing team, I have had the privilege of working with Team GB diving, the Paralympic target shooting team, England Cricket and several premiership football clubs. Each of these experiences has reinforced my view that the world of elite sports understands the power of motivation in a way wholly overlooked by most business leaders.

During the lockdowns of the novel coronavirus pandemic, I worked with many board leaders whose motivation was suddenly at an all-time low. Previously confident, "gung-ho" executives who were used to bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m. to confront the day found themselves running on fumes due to boredom, exhaustion and fear. As had been the case for Olympic coaches, my job suddenly had to focus on providing recipes for daily motivation. During this time, I developed a simple exercise called the motivation log. I would ask my clients to draw a scale from 0 to 10 and ask them to log how their motivation levels varied during each working week. After a month of logging, we would drill into the scores, looking for the "radiators" and "drains."

Radiators are events, people, places or activities that trigger increased motivation, while drains do precisely the opposite. What surprised my clients was that they were not making conscious decisions to maximize the radiators and minimize the drains. It took the pandemic to prompt these leaders to take responsibility for their motivation because, suddenly, there was a burning platform. Elite sports athletes don't wait for the burning platform; they are driven to work on their motivation through their passion for the purpose. Organizational leaders need to do the same.


At a practical level, the motivation log often reveals radiators and drains that surprise the leader. Working with one board leader in the health sector, we discovered that their motivation levels were noticeably higher when they listened to at least one hour of rock music per day. For them, rock music was a radiator. Another leader noticed that time walking in nature topped up their motivation. For others, engaging with, or avoiding, specific people made the most difference. Some needed solitude. Some needed the buzz of other people. Some loved Italian food. Some required a "fix" of sport. Some had to read fiction, while for others it was listening to a favorite leadership podcast. The list was endless, and I realized that each leader's motivation formula is unique and needs careful design and refinement.

Now that pandemic lockdowns are behind us, it is tempting to think that we don't need such a precise focus on this variable, but I think we forget it at our peril. This ever-changing world will continue to throw us one curveball after another. Can we afford to leave our motivation to chance? Or are we committed to finding our "five-a-day"—the five radiators that boost your motivation and that you can build into every working day? Like any healthy regimen, it starts with knowing what is good for you. Once you have this knowledge, you need the discipline to create new habits. Gradually, your habits become automated through repetition, and then, one day, you find that it is just like cleaning your teeth. It's good for you and it happens without you having to think about it. Such is the magic of Olympic motivation.

Related Blogs

Force For Good: How To Thrive As A Purpose-Driven Leader

Purpose-driven leadership is all the rage. B corp organizations are on the rise, declaring their...
Read more

Purpose-Driven Leadership: The Parable Of The Two Wolves

It may surprise you that your purpose lives next door to your trauma. In other words, that which...
Read more

Who Wants To Be A CEO In The Pandemic-Shifted World?

It was January 2020. I gathered together a group of CEOs in London and asked them to imagine what...
Read more

Want to work together?

Ready to get started? Reach out to John today! Contact John’s team for inquiries, collaborations, or just to say hello.