Leadership Lessons From Nathan Chen's Missed Gold Medal In The 2018 Winter Olympics

The Better Manager Team
BetterManager Executive Coach

February 20, 2018

Nathan Chen was the figure skating 2018 Winter Olympics gold medal hopeful.  Known by figure skating analysts as the world’s most technically capable — able to line-up back to back (nearly physically impossible) quadruple jumps with ease, as well as his perfect artistry on the ice, thanks to his ballet training. He was, by far, the favorite. His opponents were unanimous — he has been very consistent during his practice and will be tough to defeat.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Friday, February 16th, 2018 11:08 am.  Nathan skates onto the ice. 12,000 people watching and more tuning in on their TV.

Then the worst case scenario unfolds.  On his first opening jump, he falls. He gets back up, starts his second jump, and he falls again to the dismay and horror of all his fans.

Was he too confident coming in? Did he underestimate the pressure he would feel from such a big and important event? Was he prepared for this worst-case scenario?

Lesson #1:  No one is immune to failure.

Most importantly, keep your head held high and show up. Nathan Chen failed his first short program, re-gathered himself, showed up to all the ensuing programs and managed to climb back up to the 5th position.

As an experienced manager, one day, you might find yourself using the wrong word in communicating with your staff; or under pressure and exhaustion, snap at a direct report or a peer, and all of sudden your authority and your brand you’ve spent years building is wiped out in the blink of an eye.

Lesson #2:  Breathe, Pause. Go up to the balcony.

Performing under pressure, Nathan is the best at quads. He does quad after quad with ease during training sessions and even in the national championships. But this is his first Olympics. These events only come up every 4 years, and the stakes for the gold are high. His opportunity to perform was on that Friday and all of sudden, his frontal lobe stopped cooperating with him and he buckled under pressure.

Being a manager is like being a performer. Everybody is watching you —  your direct reports, your boss, your peers. Every mistake is amplified. Being the best at your craft is not enough anymore. Did you train your frontal lobe to be on your side? Are you extra prepared so that you can still perform whether your frontal lobe is with or without you.

Lesson #3:  Context

Circumstance. Expectations. Nathan won the US championship just a month before the Olympics.  It was a different venue, different country, different expectations, different time, different program, and yet he fails at the Olympics. He had the raw skills but in a new context, new circumstances, new expectations, new culture, the past successes mean nothing. The clock gets reset to zero.

As Tony Mayo, an executive coach, points out in an Harvard Business Review article, a leader’s “adaptive capacity” is paramount. He gives the example of Bob Nardelli who was successful as a leader at General Electric but failed when brought on board at Home Depot.


In summary, no one is immune to failure, but as they say, you miss 100% of the shots you’re not taking. So the first critical step is to show up. Under pressure, your frontal lobe will shut off.  Know that and be prepared. Context in leadership is critical.  Work your adaptive capacity muscle.

Episode Transcript

Posted on

February 20, 2018