Michael Phelps, Bill McDermott Share Their Winning Moves

After losing his recent race against a great white shark, Michael Phelps, the world’s greatest swimmer, tweeted “Rematch? Next time…warmer water.”

While this five-word tweet wasn’t meant to be a metaphor for Phelps’ approach to his success, it highlights his commitment to reaching his goals with course corrections and challenging himself to do more.

In the inaugural episode of The Winning Move, Phelps joined SAP CEO Bill McDermott to talk about leadership, purpose, and how “sacrifice” isn’t a bad word. Here are five points we heard both leaders discuss during a Facebook live session.

When It Comes to Winning, Natural Talent Can Only Get You So Far

Looking at the medals as Michael has won in his career, people assume that winning comes easy to him. But ability and talent are just starting points for doing something extraordinary. People who harness and channel that potential into winning begin each day, have clear goals in mind and are determined in seeing them through. “The great ones do things when they don’t always want to,” Phelps said. “It’s not always fun, but I had goals. I wanted to do something special, something [other] people had never done.”

And it’s this quality of seeking out goals, no matter how intangible, that appeals to Bill. When identifying early talent, Bill said he looks for someone who has a dream, is focused on the details, and wants to execute that dream with relentless passion. “People who want to be somebody – they just have something in them, and added that when someone, who “gets everything they want” is helping others achieve their goals, the success is that much more exciting. For Bill, the best thing about a natural leader is “you just being you.”

Dare to Do It Better

As a small business owner in his teens, Bill shared the hardest part was making sure he gave customers what they wanted. Of course, he provided delivery service to the elderly, and stocked items he knew his customers wanted, but his primary goal was to bring in customers who were a lot like him – teenagers who wanted something to eat and somewhere to play video games. And while his biggest competition provided that experience to them, Bill did something radically different: he didn’t limit the number of kids allowed in his store at any given time like they did. “The little one has to do what the big one wouldn’t do,” Bill said. “You gotta tap into that human zone.”

And while he was successful in achieving that intermediate goal, Bill was clear that the success of his business enabled him to fulfill his larger aspirational goals for himself at the time: to get something done, pay for his education and to move on to the next big thing in his career. “When your back’s against the wall, you find out who you really are,” Bill said.

The Hallmark of a True Leader? Be Accessible

Phelps found out who he really was at the last Olympics, an event he says he was “fully engaged” in everything he was doing for the first time. For him, it was discovering he liked being a part of a team and seeing the sport grow. Phelps was taught at a young age to write down his goals and put them in a place where he could see them, and act on them, every day, and he shared what he learned over the years with those rookie swimmers. “I went around, and talked to each athlete,” Phelps said. “I wanted to turn the page and help these guys.” In those days together, Phelps was able take a leadership role, help the team identify their strengths, and most importantly, channel the accessibility necessary to do both of these things effectively.

For Bill, when you’re tasked with motivating 87,000 employees to execute on the same game plan, accessibility is vital. During his career, he learned to reach one person at a time and be clear in sharing a clear vision for the company. “A great leader owes their people a great strategy,” Bill said. “It doesn’t matter how fast you swim, talk….you’ll never get there without [a clear vision].”

After a great strategy, Bill insisted you also have to surround yourself with people who have great ideas to help you shape it. If people are encouraged to share their ideas on how to be innovative, they’re more invested in seeing it come to life, and make adjustments if something’s just not right. “Even if you make a bad call, those are the people who will fight to make it right,” Bill said.

They’ll Remember How You Got Up, Not How You Fell

Leadership isn’t always about being strong when things are going your way. It’s about figuring out how to dust yourself off when incredible obstacles come your way. In 2015, Bill faced a life threatening injury that tested his will to keep moving forward. Recounting the events of the evening, he shared that his mind was telling him that he had done enough, that it was okay to let go. But Bill was able to quiet those voices and find the resolve to pick himself up when he thought about the things he worked so hard to achieve in his lifetime. “Everyone gets hit with their thunderbolt. I didn’t give up….and I never give up,” Bill said. “People will fall down for lots of reasons, but no one will ever remember how you fell, but they will always remember how you got up.”

In 2014, Michael was in a similar position, recounting a turning point that robbed him of his desire to live. He had to figure out who he was outside of being a swimmer, and spent five days in his room trying to get out of the darkness. “It’s okay to not be okay,” Michael said. “I grabbed the bull by the horns, and put my hand out for help. I didn’t do it alone.”

Failure Means Trying Again

For Michael, failure doesn’t mean giving up – it means figuring out a new game plan. Throughout his career, Michael failed often, but it helped him figure out what he needed to do better so he could try again. That meant going to the pool every day, 365 days a day, for 5 years straight to make sure he was bringing his best to the sport. “Sacrifice is a scary word for people,” Michael said. “To do great things…you have to be uncomfortable.”

Setting goals, being accessible, and finding ways to dust yourself off in times crisis: these are the winning moves two very different leaders embrace on their paths to do the next big thing.

Watch the replay of the session:


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