Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games: A Balance in Leading and Following

If you are among the billion or two people who just watched the opening of the Olympic Games you are witness to one of the largest scale acts of leading and following that we humans gloriously perform.

The preparation and coordination required rivals that of massive acts of war, such as the invasion of Normandy that landed 350,000 troops and their equipment in a week. I had the fortune to receive a briefing in London from the organizers of the 2012 Olympics before the International Leadership Association (, nine months prior to tonight’s opening. The numbers were staggering. Two hundred thousand employees and volunteers needed to be recruited, security cleared, trained, equipped and coordinated, all of whom would be dismissed shortly after the games’ end. Massive arrangements were required for ubiquitous security, for thousands of media representatives and ten thousand athletes, as well as their support staff, living quarters and equipment (including 7000 tennis balls). This was in addition to preparing a city not designed to accommodate voluminous traffic while building state-of-the-art stadiums in economically-distressed neighborhoods

Tonight we witnessed the results of this inspiring effort in the opening ceremonies. Forget for a moment whether or not they appealed to you aesthetically or even if you feel it is the correct way to spend resources in the face of global want. Focus on the very big picture of an entire world co-operating to stage a magnificent, peaceful expression of humanity’s achievements and hopes. That is the real story. In virtually every country on earth, human beings have organized to create the conditions needed to nurture athletes, qualify them for the events, support their participation, and coordinate with the choreographers of the opening ceremonies.

But let’s look deeper at what we witnessed tonight. We saw women athletes from countries that had never included women in their delegations. We saw rich, ethnic diversity within and between country delegations. We saw not one hero-figure lighting the Olympic torch as in earlier Olympics, but a group of young, unknown athletes representing the future, sharing the honor, passing the torch amongst themselves, taking turns leading the final leg of the 12,000 mile torch lighting ritual. Perhaps most remarkably, we saw 500 hard-hat workers, men and women, who helped build the stadium, lining the way as an honor guard while the torch-bearer entered the stadium. From the lens through which I see the world, we witnessed the countless nameless followers being recognized for the contributions that make it possible for the world’s visible leaders to declare success. It was an implicit recognition that the top-down world has become a little more balanced and that the future rests not just on leadership, but on partnerships up, down and across our human institutions.

The flares and fireworks that exploded in the spectacular finale around the stadium and the city were the sounds and sights of peace, not war, a testament to what humankind can do when leading and following revolve around worthy vision, values and purpose.