In sport, who wins and who loses is always clear; good performances and not-so-good performances are always clear. But routinely left unclear is how success or failure is engineered in the first place.
That's because the planning and the strategizing typically go on in offices and conference rooms with doors shut. It's a long way from there to delirious athletes drenched in bright lights and deafening cheers, waving their arms in triumph.
But sometimes, a rare glimpse of the inner workings of an organization can foretell victories ahead.
That perhaps occurred the other day involving Norm Blake, new boss of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In his first day on the job in Colorado Springs, Colo., Blake met with media (see The Sporting Scene, Feb. 11, 2000) in an impressive tour de force. He then moved on to other tasks, and reporters left.
Blake's most significant moment came later, however, when a handwritten note from him arrived at the home of a reporter who attended the Colorado Springs event:
"Thanks for the great questions. Enjoyed meeting you. Look forward to working with you. See you on the road to Sydney."
Just 21 words. But 21 words of far-reaching implication.
On the surface, shallow thinkers might dismiss this as a blatant attempt to shamelessly curry favor. No. What this actually signals is Norm Blake's enormous understanding of what it will take to conquer the mountainous obstacles he faces. After all, the Olympic movement, including the US involvement, is under plenty of fire, notably the scandals in Salt Lake City that involved actions to attract the winter Games there two years hence.
To get the support he needs to succeed, Blake knows he has to rebuild many wobbly bridges. He has to generate backing and affection from a suspicious public and, for good or ill, his path to the public runs through the media.
What Norm Blake understands, that woefully few bosses do, is what being the boss is all about. He knows that a personal note - the written equivalent of a smile and a handshake - can have dramatic and salutary impact.
Notice Blake didn't have a secretary produce the note. Bosses tend to love notes with somebody else's initials at the bottom. Recipients of such notes don't love them as much. Notice Blake didn't have an underling call, saying, "Mr. Blake wanted me to call you and...." Blake carries his own water. He signed it "Norm," like a real person, not "Norman P. Blake, Chief Executive Officer/Secretary General, United States Olympic Committee."
This note from Blake, which likely took him about 60 seconds to write, is of sweeping importance. That's because it shows competence, understanding, and perception, qualities that haven't always been in abundance around the USOC.
Does it have the added promise, from Blake's point of view, of making him immune from criticism in the future? Of course not. This space next week might be devoted to a searing attack on one Norman P. Blake. He knows.
Nor does a 21-word note obviate the requirement for success. Don't think we're going to buy any hooey from Blake about lack of funding. And he dare not even attempt talking to us about how hard the athletes tried in losing. When attention is on the medal stand, let's see American athletes on the top step, bedecked in gold.
Too, Olympic scandals of all stripes must be curbed. If an American cyclist engages in blood doping, is that Blake's fault? Yup. If an American weightlifter succumbs to the lure of steroids, is that Blake's fault? Yup. It's a daunting responsibility.
Often, sports teams - and businesses - fail because they are troubled at the core. It's because leadership is poor, decisionmaking flawed. There are reasons there are no more Studebakers or Edsels being made: The public gave them thumbs down.
Norm Blake has no intention of seeing Americans standing in front of the Olympic banner with their thumbs down.
A 21-word note doesn't move the world. But it speaks emphatically to the talents of a man who has one of the most overwhelming jobs in the world. And it is proof anew that, for the most part, life is not made up of huge things but of little things. Then the little things add up. Norm Blake knows. That's why one of his first acts at his new job required just 21 words.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society