Inspiration and leadership lessons on Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Photo by Stephen Hosier/COC
Have you been following the Tokyo Olympics? I've loved watching the incredible displays of athletic ability, but I've loved even more the perseverance, determination, sense of accomplishment, and sheer joy in the athletes who haven't medaled.
As I heard the athletes' behind-the-scenes stories, I saw parallels between their roads to the Olympics, and companies' journeys to Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI). Here are some character traits and allyship lessons I took away from Tokyo 2020:
1. You don't need to win to be a winner
Team Canada runner Lucia Stafford
In the Olympics, there are far more athletes who don't medal than do; but just making it to the Games is already a huge accomplishment. An athlete can reach a new personal best and still miss the podium.
In JEDI, it feels like most companies want to "achieve" diversity, or find a "fix" for the problem. But the reality is, very few (or no one) has JEDI solved, and probably never will. What's more important is - are you doing better today than you were yesterday? If you're invested in learning and changing, you're on the right track.
2. Willingness to sacrifice
Team Canada runner Justyn Knight
So many times, the commentators described the amount of time athletes put into training each day. Starting from childhood, athletes would spend 6 hours or more in the pool, on the track etc. - and that’s on top of school. What were they not doing during those hours that their friends were doing? What did they miss out on? Yet they willingly made those sacrifices, because they believed the results were worth it.
As we move towards more equitable, diverse and inclusive workplaces, shifting power and privilege to people who don’t currently have it may feel sacrificial for the people who do. These sacrifices can range from feeling uncomfortable, to losing status, to financial cost. But if we really believe in JEDI, aren’t the sacrifices worth it?
3. There's a lot more to it than meets the eye
Team Canada gymnast Ellie Black
When it comes to training, it's not just about the hours, it’s the whole program. A gymnast, for example, doesn't just do flips over and over. They lift weights, they diet, they have a whole regimen to hone their bodies.
In JEDI, many companies aren't taking a holistic view. They have projects to review policies, or hire "diverse people", or hold mandatory training. Imagine if a gymnast only used their right arm to lift weights, or only ate properly once a quarter! And yet that's basically the approach companies are taking by doing things piecemeal or having events twice a year. Wouldn't it be more effective to design a complete JEDI program to create lasting, company-wide change?
4. Courage to make mistakes and keep trying
Team Canada diver Meaghan Benfeito
Of course, along the way, we’re going to make mistakes. I’m proud of all the athletes who did well, but I’m just as proud (maybe even more) of the athletes who kept going after a big “oops”. I can’t imagine the courage and grit it took for the divers who really flopped (literally) on their last dive, to climb alllll the way back up to the top of the platform and dive again, knowing they’re risking public failure each time. The key is, they don't let their last mistake stop them from trying – and that's what leads to success.
It makes me think of how scary it can be to talk about JEDI at work. I’ve heard many allies, especially white males, who’ve shared their fear of saying something wrong. This often leads to staying silent rather than risking offense.
It’s a very human and understandable response. Who want to risk hurting others or making mistakes, especially publicly? But from what I've seen, there's a lot more grace and compassion out there than we may realize - especially for people choosing honest effort over intentional inaction. And even if we "oops", it doesn’t have to define us. We can try again. And the more we try, the more chances we have to succeed.
5. Representation brings hope and inspiration
Team Canada soccer midfielder Quinn
I love Quinn's story, from bravely competing as an openly trans, non-binary athlete, to her gold medal win with a diverse soccer team. Clearly, diversity and inclusion is a winning combination. But the benefits of JEDI go far beyond team success.
Team Canada's role modelling of racial and gender representation paves the way for future athletes. It makes a difference to see "people like me" breaking through to positions that I could never dream of before. Don't get me wrong, there's still work to be done. For example, Indigenous athletes are way underrepresented due to systemic barriers and discrimination. But hopefully, these Olympians from different races, ethnicities, religions, and gender identities inspire others to believe they can be accepted too. True (not token) diversity comes from heartfelt inclusion and equity.
6. We all need support and encouragement
Bev Priestman, Team Canada Women's Soccer Coach
Photo from Christine Sinclair's Instagram
Beyond courage and grit, I think our ability to succeed or bounce back from mistakes requires a supportive community. Whether an athlete wins or loses, one of the most heartwarming things for me was watching them with their coaches and teammates. They knew the sacrifice it took to get there; they gave advice during competition; and most of all, they clapped, cheered and hugged for every performance.
I've often wondered what the business world would be like if we all had Olympic coaches. I've had both good and bad bosses over the years, but very few were cheering for me and dedicated to my personal success.
That's why I'm committed to coaching individuals who want to grow more inclusive and create workplaces that are equitable and diverse. The journey to JEDI is long and challenging, and it's one that I'm on as well. My Coaching for Inclusivity program is for organizational leaders who want a safe space to grow and learn.
So if you'd like to walk the JEDI path, and would like a guide to walk alongside you, please email me. I'd love to support you!
Team Canada long-distance runner Mohammed Ahmed
Share your stories and comments.
What’s inspiring your JEDI journey today? What encouragement do you need? What other parallels with the Olympics do you see?