Cate Campbell on What Makes a Great Leader

There's a reason business leaders often look to sportspeople for inspiration — they're experts on teamwork, setting goals, navigating failure and staying focused. 

In this exclusive piece, Quest ambassador and four-time gold medal-winning Olympian, Cate Campbell shares her invaluable insights on leadership. Drawing from her extensive experience as an elite athlete, Cate offers a unique perspective on what it takes to be an effective leader, both in sport and in business.

Her thoughtful reflections and practical advice, crafted especially for Quest, provide a roadmap for aspiring leaders across all fields.

The leaders who stand out share some key qualities. The first is their ability to listen, to put aside their own beliefs, maybe even their expertise, and hear the people in front of them. The next one is to give people responsibility. The more responsibility you give people, the more responsibility they take for themselves and for other people. Thirdly, it's allowing people to play to their strengths. In the Australian Olympic team, we make sure that we value every single member of the team, whether they deliver a gold medal or not, because not everyone on the team is capable of delivering a gold medal. Their ‘gold medal moment’ might be qualifying for a final, and we need them to feel seen and heard and valued. They contribute to the team in more ways than just performance. 

If you're not willing to put yourself in a position where failure is possible, you're also not in a position where you're willing to succeed. Failure is really difficult to talk about. As a society, we don’t do a good job of it. If it's the people around us who have failed, they can see we are uncomfortable and they step away. But what we know about high-performing teams is they perform at their best when they're cohesive. It's about bringing people in as quickly as possible after they've had a poor performance. We need to be better at helping people navigate failures and disappointments because we need them to get up and try again. Next time, they might succeed.

When a setback happens, there are three things you can do. The first is to accept — accept that this has happened and you’re in a situation you didn't plan for. Next is to be flexible. Maybe you have to lean on different people or try a different strategy, but you have to be willing to adapt quickly. And then the third one is to act. Make a choice to progress the situation.

Just before the hundred metres freestyle at the Tokyo Olympic Games, I woke up unable to move my neck. I had to accept that I literally had no movement in my neck. That was not something that I was wanting to happen. And then I had to adapt. My usual pre-race routine went out the window. I needed to spend a lot of time on the physio table. I couldn't do all my sets in my warm-up. I couldn't dive. So I had to adapt in the moment. And then I had to act – I had to make little improvements in real time to give me the opportunity to stand behind the starting blocks. I went on and won a bronze medal in that race.

Know that motivation is not a feeling, it is an action. If I went to training when I felt like it, I might go three times a week. It also wouldn't be at 5:00 AM. When that alarm goes off, I do not feel like getting out of bed. But I have made a commitment to a goal. The motivation is not the feeling of wanting to get ot of bed. It is getting out of bed. 

When you’re doing something for the first time, get comfortable with feeling uncomfortableFor me, looking ahead to the rest of this year, it's quite scary because for the first time in my life I don't have a clear goal or direction to go in. I will have to find out what I can do, what I can't do, what I like, what I don't like.

As someone who has been so regimented for so many years of my life – I've been an Olympic swimmer since I was in high school — I've never really had the opportunity to explore what life looks like away from the pool. Part of that is exciting, but part of it is really scary. 

Change is scary, and that holds true for anyone. So I am looking ahead with excitement and trepidation, with a plan to try different things. 

And to be okay with being really bad at things, because everyone has to go through a learning process. I am at my best in my profession, I'm right at that pinnacle. Soon, I am going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.


Cate 's journey from the pool to life beyond competitive swimming exemplifies the leadership qualities she champions.

Her emphasis on listening, empowering others, embracing failure as a stepping stone to success, and maintaining motivation through action rather than feeling, offers valuable lessons for leaders in all fields.

As Cate faces new challenges outside the pool, she reminds us that great leadership often means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Whether in sports, business, or life, the principles she shares can guide us in navigating our own paths to success and inspiring those around us.

Cate's insights, shaped by years of elite performance and teamwork, provide a powerful blueprint for effective leadership in any arena.



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