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Triumph and disaster: treat these two imposters the same

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Multi medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, Lord Chris Holmes, explains how losing his sight led him to identify his life purpose, and why integration was key to running the 2012 Paralympic Games.

How did you cope with losing your sight?

I remember, with 100% clarity, being at cricket practice, walking home and the sun setting on a lovely evening. I went to sleep and the next morning I couldn’t see a thing. I knew this was potentially life-changing and yet I remember having a very strange, calm feeling, almost like being at the centre of a storm. The day I came out of hospital I knew, even at 14 years old, that whatever happened now was down to me. Knowing I had support from my parents and siblings was amazing, but fundamentally I realised that if I didn’t push myself, none of the things I wanted to achieve would happen. 

Did it give you that final push to follow your dreams?

The siloed nature of my school at the time was pushing me down a pre-determined path of doing woodwork or metalwork, just like the generation before me and the generation before that. As a child, I had three dreams: to do A-levels, to go to Cambridge University and to be in the Olympic Games. After I lost my sight, the power of those dreams unquestionably underpinned all my achievements. Initially they felt like embers,flickering – so I said to myself: “Come on Chris, what are yougoing to do?” This was the point of reckoning. I got my A-Levels, I made it to Cambridge University and I became a Paralympian. Never be pushed down a route you didn’t choose, ask yourself: “What mettle are you made of?” 

"Never be pushed down a route you didn’t choose."

How would you advise others to find their purpose?

Be brave, the biggest waste is restricting yourself with selfimposed shackles. Be the character you want to be, not the caricature of somebody else’s plan. If you’re doing something you don’t want to do, stop. For organisations, it’s all about letting your people become the embodiment of the purpose.

What do you mean when you quote “triumph and disaster, treat these two imposters the same”?

Feel all the emotion but don’t let yourself be dragged off course reflect upon your initial purpose and refer back to it. Ask yourself:“Am I on an authentic path? Is it delivering on passion and purpose?” When I was swimming, it was always: “Will it make me swim faster?” Judge everything through that lens.

 

What was your role in the London Olympic/ Paralympic Games 2012?

I was director of Paralympic integration, a role with two elements. I was responsible for leading the team which delivered the London 2012 Paralympic Games: 8,000 full-time employees, 70,000 games makers (volunteers), and more than 100,000 contractors. I also had to integrate the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games projects.

We believed the most efficient way to deliver the two Games and the transition period was with a single organising committee.

What was the most challenging aspect of leading this movement?

We were building an organisation from scratch. It was the ultimate blank piece of paper and we had seven years to construct it. We had to get employees, games makers and contractors on board. We couldn’t get tangled up in the detail of the sheer size. Key to this was being clear about how we wanted to orchestrate the Games and trusting people to do the best work of their lives.

"Your people become the embodiment of the purpose"

What would you say was the most effective leadership style to achieve this?

Being open and having horizontal structures. For the Olympic and Paralympic Games, nobody in meetings had a louder voice than anyone else, and if someone didn’t say anything, we’d ask: “What’s your view on this?” Hierarchies won’t deliver that; you can’t have vertical structures. Equality across the whole platform was vital.

How did you come up with the concept of ‘games makers’?

How do you manage 70,000 volunteers and get them to do the best work of their lives when you’re not paying them? We needed to come up with a brand that reflected the fact that these people were much more than volunteers, that these people would make the Games – and the ‘games makers’ were born.

Whether you were a spectator, an athlete, a member of the media or a sponsor, it was very likely you would meet a games maker before anyone else.

Do you think a flat hierarchy is a strong platform for a successful organisation?

If you are going to be the most efficient organisation, you have to have a horizontal view, letting every voice be heard. We need to take some risks from the heart, they are not careless risks, they are considered. We need to embrace the potential.

How would you advise leaders to ensure everyone’s voice is heard?

It’s about working with individuals and executive committees at the top of organisations and enabling them to lead in this authentic way.

What would be your advice to others facing adversity in any aspect of their life?

The key to overcoming adversity is, again, about treating those two imposters – triumph and disaster – the same. By the very nature of being born human and having that spark of life inside you, you have the capacity to pull through. It may feel like an insurmountable problem at the time, but just take doable steps.

What is your life mantra?


Break the bones of life and suck out the marrow.

A day in the life of Chris’ guide dog Lottie…



We head to the tube and Lottie knows the route, she is great at getting around the tube. Every day I am truly upstaged – she is the first guide dog ever in the House of Lords. Lottie is with me all day whether it’s in my office, the debating chamber, or at a lunch or dinner. As soon as we are home, she is off the lead and free.

What is Lottie’s leadership style?

I think she has a frontpawed approach to the situation, she knows what she’s doing. The difference between walking with Lottie and a stick is the difference between crawling and flying.

What is her favourite activity?


She loves her work and people, but nothing compares to chasing a brand new rubbery tennis ball!

Favourite food?

She is on a good diet; however, if she were given half a chance, she would jump through hoops of fire to get a chip.

Emily  Sexton-Brown

By Emily Sexton-Brown

Emily is the commissioning editor at Changeboard

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