Pop quiz: which woman won the all-around artistic gymnastics gold medal in Tokyo? Maybe that’s too easy (Sunisa Lee). How about this one: name the Australian who tied the record for the most medals won by a woman at a single Olympic Games. No? We’ll come back to this.
Who doesn’t love the Olympics? Every four years, you get to spend a couple of weeks watching supreme athletes do what they do, glued to events glamorous and obscure while pretending to be an instant expert on everything from hockey to handball.
I was reminded of my quadrennial obsession last week when former Arsenal manager Arsène Wegner—now the chief of football development at the sport’s world governing body, FIFA—unveiled a scheme to hold soccer’s World Cup every two years, rather than the current four.
The reaction was almost universally negative, and the reason is obvious: what makes events such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup special is scarcity. Each happens so infrequently (relatively speaking) that winning assumes even greater significance. As I like to tell my five-year-old son: “If you had ice cream all the time, it wouldn’t be special.” It may be a classic parent excuse, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
You could argue the same rule should apply to thought leadership. The power of content—and (to steal a quote of unknown origin) its ability to “earn you the right to sell me stuff”—tends to diminish in inverse proportion to the volume published. In my more cynical, younger days, I used to declare there was nothing fresh when it came to thought leadership—it was basically a cycle of dusting off old ideas, rebranding them, and selling them as new. But that’s not quite right.
What’s actually happening is businesspeople are solving thorny issues daily by refining processes and practices, the ideas advancing slowly and incrementally. We’re just so bombarded by content that we can’t easily see this evolution—everything just looks like a retread (“Another article on changing consumer behavior?!”), and even distinctive thinking has trouble slicing through the noise.
But what if you dove into thought leadership just now and then? Say, every four years? You’d see something quite different. You’d see huge advances in thinking around how leaders and organizations should address everything from digital transformation to supply-chain management to environmental, social, and governance issues and the need for corporations to prioritize the creation of long-term value.
The point isn’t whether these issues were being discussed five, 10, or 20 years ago—of course they were. It’s whether they were being addressed as they are today, with the latest thought leadership staying on the bleeding edge by absorbing, analyzing, and responding to myriad advances in thinking and changes in external circumstances.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of mediocre “thought leadership” floating around, and we face a constant challenge to drive quality rather than quantity. My point is—don’t be too quick to blithely dismiss the latest article on such-and-such. If it’s pushing thinking forward, it’s doing its job. There are only so many truly groundbreaking, unique, and genuinely new ideas in any given year; we should celebrate when we get one but recognize the critical role that seemingly run-of-the-mill content plays in driving our collective wisdom.
The Australian who tied the record for the most medals won by a woman at a single Olympics? She didn’t come out of nowhere. After missing selection for the 2012 games, she won silver at the 2013 world championships, bagged four golds at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, gold at the 2015 worlds, gold at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, four golds at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and three gold medals at the 2019 world championships. For anyone closely following her career, her performance in Tokyo, where she won seven medals (four gold!), was a logical progression.
So, of course, I knew it was swimmer Emma McKeon. Two months ago, this fellow Australian was cheering her to victory from Chicago, regaling my wife with biographic details cribbed from the commentators as though I knew her personally. Today? I had to Google her name. But just wait until Paris 2024!