September 3, 2020
Daniel Kowalski: 6 lessons on focus, resilience, & leadership
Exceptional humans are those who challenge convention, defy the odds, and never give up, even when facing immense hardship and personal disappointment. In the first of Lexer’s “Exceptional Humans” series, we chatted with Daniel Kowalski, Australian freestyle swimmer and four-time Olympic medalist about his experience overcoming injury, illness, and adversity to succeed. Here’s a recap of what we learned.
Daniel Kowalski’s athletic career was plagued by hardship, including multiple shoulder injuries, personal disappointments, anxiety, and other psychological demons—but he pushed through it all to succeed and now uses his experiences to assist others.
Outside of swimming, he is an ambassador for Australian mental health and wellbeing support organization Beyond Blue, the Pinnacle Foundation for LGBTQ+ youth, and Australia’s Marriage Equality Campaign. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2000 for services to sport, while also serving as an Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
We spoke with him about his experience to gain insight on how to maintain focus, resilience, and effective leadership through adversity. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty around the world, we hope that you can apply these insights to break through setbacks and achieve your goals.
6 lessons from Daniel Kowalski on focus, resilience, and leadership through adversity
1. Remember the little things.
When Daniel was first starting out with swimming in Adelaide, he considered himself a small fish in a big pond. Surrounded by accomplished teammates, he knew that he’d have to work hard and stay focused to surpass his competitors and achieve his goals.
“I wasn’t an outstanding talent, and no one earmarked me to be able to get to the goal that I wanted to get to, which was to make the Australian swimming team,” says Daniel. “I was quite good in Adelaide, but my teammates at the time were winning national championships and I felt as though I was working just as hard as them.”
So what would Daniel do to set himself apart from his peers?
“The one thing that I think separated me from my colleagues was a matter of being head down and bum up and really concentrating on those little things,” he says. “Like anything you’re passionate about, you have to pay attention to the detail and nuances of what the contemporaries of what you’re doing—so in swimming, for me, it was Kieran Perkins—and how he’s approaching his training and what his technique was like. It was doing those little things that I found I was starting to make those big gains.”
The business takeaway:
In the retail world, many small businesses come to a point in their growth where they’re competing with larger enterprises. Winning as a “small fish in a big pond” is possible, but you have to put aside your pride and consistently work as hard (or harder than) your competitors. As your successes accumulate, don’t let the little things slide.
For example, one of the little things that can go a long way in retail is collecting in-store customer data. This type of data is often overlooked because it’s more difficult to collect than ecommerce data, but it can enable incredible insight into who your customers are and how to engage them across channels.
2. Make choices, not sacrifices.
Training to be an Olympic athlete requires a number of difficult decisions and behaviors that would be considered immense sacrifices by most teenagers—but because Daniel was so passionate and driven, he never looked at anything he did as a sacrifice.
“They were just choices that I wanted to make and I felt I had to make if I wanted to make that progression,” says Daniel. “I still feel like I go about with that attitude today. If I look at the word sacrifice, straightaway it has a negative connotation that I don’t want to do it.”
The business takeaway:
The hard work required to achieve your goals will often seem to come with significant sacrifices. By shifting your mindset and seeing that work as a choice to allow the natural progression of your passion and talent, the process becomes much easier.
3. Work smarter, not harder.
Many of us have had the experience of pushing too hard, too fast, and burning out before we’ve achieved what we set out to achieve. Daniel is no exception.
In the early teenage years of his training, he learned that working as hard as you possibly can does not guarantee results. Instead, it’s about your approach and strategy to that hard work that makes it effective.
“Swimming is a very training-oriented sport,” says Daniel. “You’re doing lap after lap after lap—but there’s no point doing that if you’re not being smart about it. That was the biggest thing I took from that 14 to 19 year age, because I don’t think I could’ve worked any harder. It’s about being smart and efficient with the time that I had.”
The business takeaway:
In the face of adversity or hardship, it’s tempting to put your blinders on and mindlessly bulldoze your way toward your goals—but before you use all of your energy, take the time to think carefully about your business, your customers, and the greater economic environment, and then make calculated decisions about your approach to work moving forward.
Data is the best asset to help you work smartly. By strategically collecting and analyzing data about your business and customers, you can keep a pulse on the performance of your business activities in real-time, respond quickly and strategically to changes, and make predictions to inform your future strategies.
4. Avoid complacency.
Often, as we begin to make progress toward our goals, it’s easy to forget the hard work and discipline it took to make those initial gains—but just because you’ve overcome those “rookie” challenges, doesn’t mean the big win is guaranteed. You have to implement structures and processes to maintain your momentum and push you to the next level.
That’s why Daniel made the decision to move from a casual, laid-back training environment on the Gold Coast to a more intense and structured training environment in Melbourne.
“I think regardless of what you embark on, you reach a point where you need to focus to ensure that you keep that passion there, you stay driven, and you don’t become complacent,” says Daniel. “I moved from that casual, laid-back environment to Melbourne because I felt that I needed someone who would whip me into shape…. I lived, ate, and breathed swimming 24/7.”
The business takeaway:
What worked once isn’t guaranteed to work forever, and you need to continuously re-evaluate your business’s progress and processes to understand how to continue growing. This is especially crucial in an uncertain economic climate where consumer behaviors and attitudes are shifting every day.
5. Stay humble and be prepared for the worst.
It’s impossible to plan for everything, and the recent disruptions have made that more clear than ever.
In Daniel’s case, he ran into a number of unexpected obstacles that could’ve spelled the end of his athletic career, including multiple shoulder injuries and being hit by a car.
“I moved to Melbourne from the Gold Coast, so I’m 17–18 years old in Aspendale Gardens,” says Daniel. “On my sixth training session, I felt a pop in my shoulder and I wouldn’t swim again for six months. So I’m out in Aspendale, I don’t know a single soul, I’m trying to rehab, and it was just a really, really dark time. About six months later, I’m riding my bike and I get hit by a car. It was just a total mess.”
In order to keep going, he needed to operate from a place of passion, not from a place of confidence in his ability to win.
“At that point in time, Australia had some of the fastest swimmers in the world, and here I am spending six months out of the water,” he says of his recovery period after being injured. “This is something we’ve all learned: You can be as planned and organised to the Nth degree, but all it takes is one little hiccup and then you have to start again. So I wasn’t entirely confident. Passion and love for what you do only gets you so far in these particular instances. Until I heard my name called on that last night, I didn’t think I’d be going to the Olympics.”
The business takeaway:
The pandemic and its associated economic impact was a wildly unexpected disruption, and most of us had to throw what seemed like air-tight business plans out the window. To make the best of a worst-case scenario, you have to stay humble and open to the idea that anything could change at any moment.
By improving your business’s agility, you can shorten your response time to major market disruptions like COVID-19, unexpected moves by competitors, and changes in consumer behaviours and mindsets.
6. Lean into your support network.
When you’re as motivated and passionate as Daniel, it’s common to push mindlessly toward your goal while insisting that you can do it all on your own—the truth is you probably can’t.
Building, maintaining, and leaning on your support network is a critical component of overcoming challenges and driving success. After moving to Melbourne to push his training further, Daniel learned this the hard way:
“When you have a carrot like the Olympic games where it’s once every four years, for the most part, it’s pretty easy to stay motivated,” says Daniel. “But what made it difficult for me is that I didn’t have that support network that I’d previously had by being in a new city. One of the things I quite often talk about is, I had a lot of demons, psychologically, but I never got the help—the resources were there, but I didn’t tap into them…. I realised I needed that support network around me and I moved back to the Gold Coast and back to my old coach and put myself in an environment where I felt safe and I felt protected.”
Today, Daniel not only understands the importance of that support network but also acts as a support network for young athletes transitioning back into normal working life after the Olympics.
“I understood the importance of mentors and mentorship and surrounding myself with good people who could give me strong, solid, honest advice,” says Daniel. “That is one of the biggest, easiest things that people in a position to assist athletes can do—or anyone…whatever their field of passion is at an early age and they’ve gotta make that next step. Spending time with someone for five minutes or for five hours can have a profound impact on that next chapter of their life.”
The business takeaway:
The most successful (and resilient) businesses operate as a single, close-knit team. As business leaders and executives, you have to build efficient, cross-collaborative teams that will pull together—not apart—during times of crisis. In the retail industry, that means breaking down your channel-based siloes and reorganizing your business to be customer-centric.
Exceptional humans maintain high performance in the face of adversity
Daniel’s success, candor, resilience, humility, and clarity of thought are just a few of the reasons he stands out as a truly exceptional human. His experiences prove that remaining focused through failures, powered by your passions, driven by efficiency, and supported by your network are all key components to rising above adversity to the heights of success.