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Organizational behavior July 26, 2012

Usain Bolt and the peril when your status rises too high

Race track
As Usain Bolt arrives in London for this year’s Olympics, question marks hang over the previously untouchable sprint star.

He was beaten at the Jamaican trials by his young countryman Johan Blake in both the 100 and 200-meter events, setting the stage for a sprint showdown nobody would have predicted until recently. Bolt set two world records and won three gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, and he seemed to ride the crest of a wave for the next few years. In 2009 he set records that many thought could be beaten only by himself. In fact, to many observers, his greatest rival was his own technique. Refine that and he would be unbeatable for years to come. Yet if you look at his sprint times since 2009, you’ll observe a distinctly downward trend that coincides almost exactly with dramatic increases in his sponsorships, prize money, commercial endorsements, and worldwide fame. Could it be that his increased status will contribute to a big upset in London?


Status is a funny thing. It can play a large role in building a person up, whether in sports or in the corporate world, but it can play an equally important role in bringing him to his knees. We have seen it time and again in the sporting world with the likes of Vijay Singh admitting, upon losing his world number one slot to Tiger Woods, that he had “become complacent with all the off-course distractions” associated with being the world’s number one. But can this effect be quantified? I have done research into how status affects the performance of PGA golfers and NASCAR drivers, focusing on the exact point where extremely high status begins to foster complacency, diversion, and potential failure. There are, of course, other factors, but the results show that there is a clearly definable apex in status where performance begins to be hampered. In golf, shots under par decrease, and in NASCAR, lap times get slower. It appears that Bolt may have found himself at this very apex within the last couple of years.


The dangers inherent in high status are just as prevalent in the boardroom as on the track, the golf course, or the racing circuit. Most of us are familiar with the executive drunk on his or her own success and infallibility—and with the slow slip into risky decisions and all-round bad behavior that can come with that.

What can be done in the business world to stave off decline when status hits the heights? Here are three ideas that might keep you (or your boss) out of trouble:


  1. Strategic redeployment. When you’re surrounded by people who think you are fantastic (and insist on telling you so all the time), consider moving into an environment that is perhaps not quite so obviously enthusiastic. Status is a local competitive advantage. When the home field advantage is taken away, an executive’s raw underlying ability is exposed, and if that executive is as good as he or she thinks, his or her motivation gets stronger.
  2. Redefine your reference points. GE’s Jack Welch maintained a rule that every division of his company had to be ranked number one or two in its market, or it would be fixed, sold, or closed—a great way to keep his executives from resting on their laurels. But Welch took the rule a step further. As GE went international, he moved the goal post. Dominating your local market was no longer enough. You now had to be number one or two on the global field. The lesson is never to be content, no matter how successful you are. Staying with easy reference points might feel great, but those who do so risk ending up a tempest in a teapot. That’s why when Kobe Bryant ran out of real rivals on the court, he started to measure himself against the sport’s legends, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
  3. Humility and humanity. That’s great if you can pull it off, but perhaps it’s the most difficult challenge of them all, trying to display the perfect mix of confidence and humility that inspires continuing performance while reminding yourself of your own humanity. I don’t want to advocate fear as a corrective, but it is nonetheless possible to instill the spirit intended by Intel’s Andy Grove when he argued that “only the paranoid survive.”


Whether Usain Bolt has been adversely affected by his own superstar status we’ll find out on August 5.  Much to his credit, Bolt, like Bryant, appears to be looking beyond the scope of current rivals to those past and future. As he noted ahead of the Jamaican Olympic trials, “This Olympics can give me my legend status, so that’s my aim and what I hope to do.”


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