Olympian with a Story

By Bob Bruner-

We tend to become the stories we tell about ourselves—or so cognitive psychologists remind us. As a teacher, I have seen numerous examples (good and bad) in students. We see this in organizations too. That’s why my colleagues in strategy, ethics, leadership, and communications emphasize the importance of mission/vision statements and business leaders for reminding their enterprises about the collective aspirations. Our stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

I was reminded of this yesterday by Adam Nelson, who qualified for the Olympics in the shot put event. He is a member of Darden’s Class of 2008 and won the Silver Medal in shot put in the 2004 and 2000 Olympic Games. I met Adam in the course, General Managers Taking Action. He was a capable student, articulate, respected by his peers, and with good judgment. What I saw on TV yesterday was an incredible competitor: focused, tightly coiled, and then with massive—almost explosive—physical power. To the casual observer, Adam in the classroom and Adam in the field were two different people. I think they were one and the same.

Indeed, I think that most students who come to Darden carry some extraordinary ambition for which the learning experience at Darden represents a partial down payment. In addition to his academic work, Adam invested heavily in conditioning, training, and competing that would prepare him for the Olympic Games. Such preparation is so complicated and arduous that it requires serious skills of management to go forward. Patrick Sweeney (D’98), an oarsman who missed the Olympics by a split-second in the qualifying races, described himself as an entrepreneur: raising money to cover his training, managing his development, handling logistics for various contests, and so on.

Darden students carry very complicated stories about themselves. For Adam, it was to get an MBA and an Olympic Gold Medal as a prologue to a career serving world-class athletes through business. For others, the “and” may entail founding a business, addressing a social problem, serving in politics, starting a family, or becoming an expert. Rather than striking a contradiction, it is usually true that getting an MBA makes sense in the context of the larger story that our students tell about themselves. Indeed, it is the prevalence of such stories—combined with strong will—that presages a destiny that is remarkable in some way.

The outcome of the Olympic Games in China will be thrilling to watch, not least because of the unfolding drama of the stories of the individual athletes. But the Games are never the whole story about these people. The Darden Community wishes Adam Nelson great success in China and then great success in achieving the rest of his story.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 06/29/2008 09:55:26 PM