Real Leaders

How to Lead Like a Champion

World-renowned fashion photographer, Nigel Barker, has shot a series of iconic portraits of 16 world-class athletes to help raise money and awareness for nonprofit Laureus Sport for Good USA. The “Spirit of Champions Collection” captures the joy, beauty and power of sport as embodied by these amazing athletes. What can aspiring leaders learn from their endurance and strength of mind?

Nigel Barker.

Shooting fashion models on a runway is what Nigel Barker (above, center) does best, but when he discovered athletes, he became fascinated by their innate ability to move naturally, with incredible grace and precision. “They are highly trained human beings,” he says. “Every step they take – nothing is by accident.” By using a long exposure photographic technique that fires the flash at the end of a motion, Barker managed to stop some of the world’s most recognized athletes in their tracks and create an amazing illusion of movement behind them. This ghost-like effect captures the ‘spirit’ of the athlete, according to the photographer, who photographed a special collection of champion athletes that debuted at the Laureus Sport for Good Fashion Show, their fundraising gala, in October of last year.

Barker came to prominence as the creator of  TV series The Face with Naomi Campbell. His 25 years of garnering attention in fashionable circles, his charismatic half Sri Lankan, half British heritage and the 2.5 million social media followers he’s picked up along the way are the now being used to shine a light on social issues that touch him deeply. “There’s nothing more rewarding than leaving a legacy that creates positive change in the world,” he muses. “As a creative, I can tell stories that touch peoples hearts and help change minds. Viewers of my work will have various opinions, but I simply want to celebrate success and life, and remind people of their personal power – in the hope that they take an emotion away from seeing my photograph and make a good decision with it.”

When covering the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Barker chose to focus instead on the triumph of the human spirit, rather than the death and destruction he saw around him. “I prefer to extract the positive in people, to show that we all have a strength and incredible potential inside us,” he says.


Nadia Comăneci.

On the night of 27 November 1989, a few weeks before the Romanian Revolution, a group of seven people set off on foot to escape the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, a Marxist-Leninist who had ruled the Eastern European country with an iron fist for 21 years. Like most Communists countries, citizens were not allowed to leave. The group embarked on a dangerous overland journey, mostly on foot and in the dark, that took them through Hungary, Austria, and finally to the United States.

Among them was 28-year-old Nadia Comăneci, a five-time Olympic gold medalist and the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0 at the Olympic Games. Comăneci was one of the lucky ones. “People died every day trying to defect,” she recalls.

Eleven years later she found herself standing alongside Nelson Mandela on a stage, celebrating the world’s greatest athletes at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco. Comăneci was one of eleven Laureus Academy Members at the time, who had pledged to use their fame and influence to help kids around the world through the power of sport. “Mandela said, ‘Sport has the power to change the world,’ – it was an amazing moment that I could relate to,” says Comăneci.

You don’t have to be a star athlete to create change in the world. Start something in your own neighborhood. 

“If I had to give advice to my younger self I wouldn’t change a thing. You learn from both good and bad in life, they are intertwined and equally useful.” The former Olympian is now a champion of the youth and believes kids should always do what they love. “Stay busy and stay involved,” she advises. “Competing at the Olympics is daunting for anyone, but for whatever reason, my 16-year-old self managed to block out the huge symbolic significance and just focus on the competition.” It’s a lesson from which any leader can learn: become obsessed with a single challenge and ignore the hype others have created around it, which can make you nervous and unsettled. Comăneci’s training as a gymnast since age six has also taught her that self-confidence comes from repeating a task again and again until it’s perfect.

Ironically, being trained in a dogmatic and strict Communist country – always pushed to deliver more – gave her the strength of will to flee the repression of her country finally. “We all have the courage to do something extraordinary, that no one else has done before,” she says. “It’s hiding somewhere inside all of us, like a switch waiting to be activated.” Comăneci’s 12-year-old son Dylan now inspires her to get out of bed each day. He’s been in a gym since age two, but not being pressured into gymnastics like his mother. “Gymnastics is the perfect base for any sport,” says Comăneci. “He will find his own excellence in whatever he does. But my next perfect 10 is to learn how to equip myself to deal with a teenager.”


Miles Chamley-Watson.

Chamley-Watson may be the coolest thing to happen to fencing. 
The 29-year-old British-born American fencer made history at an early age. As one of the oldest sports ever invented (dating back to the 15th Century), this puts into context his incredible feat in 2013, when he made history as the first American to ever win the World Championship in Senior Men’s Foil – the only American to hold this title “Every little kid loves playing with swords.

I would tell the younger Miles to do the exact same thing I did. Because if I told the younger Miles to be a better kid, I would never have found the sport that changed my life. 

And that’s exactly how I got my start in fencing. When I was young, I used to get in trouble all the time. I’d pick up sticks and poke my classmates and tell them ‘You’re it!’ I had to stay after school and get disciplined for this, and that’s how I discovered this incredible, historic sport. Today, I credit my family and my coaches for getting me here, and for giving me an opportunity to compete at the highest level. With determination and leadership, my goal is to win an Olympic Gold. Every day I train like it’s my last, in order to make this dream come true. I consider anyone who breaks barriers to be a leader.”


Missy Franklin.

Five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin currently holds the world record in the 200-meter backstroke. Despite meticulous planning and training since age 13, when she competed in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, she believes there will always be an element of the unknown.

“I believe everything happens in life exactly the way it should be,” she says. “Lessons in life are learned at the exact moment we need to know them, you can’t plan everything in life.” She also has no delusions of grandeur when it comes to power. “The most important aspect of leadership is knowing when to follow. Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to lead all the time,” she shares. “Be open to learning from people around you, let them step up and have a shot at leading too. Being humble enough to sit back and listen is true leadership.”

As a Laureus Ambassador, Franklin is part of an elite group of athletes who volunteer their time to support the global work of Laureus Sport for Good – promoting the values of sport among disadvantaged communities around the world. You’d expect this exclusive club, that counts Marcus Allen, Martina Navratilova, Marvin Hagler and Monica Seles among its ranks, to suffer from ego problems. But you’d be wrong. “I am struck by the innate sense of humility and respect among these star athletes,” she says. “When I’m in a room with them, there’s mutual respect and understanding of what it took to reach the top. We understand the daily sacrifices that are needed to push yourself to achieve the extraordinary.”

Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to lead all the time. You should sometimes be open to learning from everyone around you.

Being a role model for younger people is the biggest blessing she has ever received and working with kids to give them a better life through sport and to dream big is hugely satisfying.

Visiting a Laureus-supported youth program in Sri Lanka that was established in the aftermath of the Tsunami in 2004 was an emotional moment for Franklin. Looking at a watermark on a building 12 feet high, created by a deadly wall of water, it reminded her that the substance she’d been swimming in since age five could kill too.

“While running a swim clinic here, the kids taught me how to play cricket. I realized that the lessons I teach kids around the world should not only be about playing sport better but an improvement in school and life too.” 

Leadership lessons from competitive swimming can mirror closely the duality many business leaders face – you’re alone in a pool lane, but also part of a team.

“Ask any elite swimmer if they’d train each day alone in a swimming pool,” says Franklin, “And most would say, ‘No, that would be miserable! You’re always being pushed by teammates who encourage you to go beyond your limits. Inspiration is all around us. You don’t need an Olympic gold medal to be inspiring, even showing kindness to a stranger can change lives. Look around the world to see what others are doing and copy their actions, it can be that easy.”


The Chin Twins.

Uniting mind body and soul. Kimberly Hise and Cristen Barker are identical twins living on the opposite sides of the country, separated by distance, but intrinsically joined in spirit in everything they do. They are wives, mothers, yogis and working women who aim to inspire the other’s strengths and to support the others weaknesses. The pair believe the link they share as twins exists between all of us. “I have learned that the more you give the more you get back,” says Kimberly. Cristen agrees.

More like this

Most Recent Articles