The Hero’s Journey

Behind the victory of Joseph Schooling, first Singaporean to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, there are lessons for many working professionals and leaders.

On a very normal Saturday at 9.12 am tiny island state of Singapore, a young man created history by being the first Singaporean to win an Olympic gold medal. Joseph Schooling not only won the men’s 100-metre butterfly stroke swimming event, he beat childhood hero and most be-medalled Olympian ever, Michael Phelps.
On top of it all, at 50:39, it was a new Olympic record. But apart from being just the first Singaporean to win Olympic gold, the narrative behind his victory contains lessons for many working professionals and leaders. 
Schooling, born to a Eurasian father and Malaysian-Chinese mother showed talent from an early age.
When the crunch came, his parents sold off their house to pay for the best coaching and swimming academies in the United States, so that he could grow to be a contender. And then came the long and difficult fight to secure his exemption from the usual two-year military service that Schooling was obliged to serve in Singapore. During the entire decade long journey, and possibly close to a million dollars spent by his parents, official and government support was negligible and at best bureaucratic. But winning his exemption helped create an uninterrupted path to eventual success.
This week, thousands of well wishers have thronged the streets and airport to meet the returning hero, and various two-faced politicians have unabashedly sought to claim credit for his success or rushed for a photo opportunity. Such are the realities.
Although in totally different context, my own leadership of the 1st Singapore Everest Expedition has a similar arduous path – that of incredulity, derision, and when it seemed we were to be successful, having people wanting to  share the limelight and success.
Eventual success did bring accolades, including some from people who didn’t believe we would succeed, or tried to latch on to whatever shine the success brought to this small nation, starved of sporting success.
There is much soul-searching this week as we continue to reflect on official policies which bankrolled the recruitment (almost exclusively from China) of foreign sports talents, fast-tracked them to citizenship, in order to win medals (no Olympic gold to date), while neglecting local-grown talent.
By using this buy-the-medals approach, the nation was divided as to whether we truly ‘deserved’ these medals; whereas a local-grown hero united us.
Our brains are hardwired to learn from stories. Stories give meaning to  what we do and why we do what we do. The better narrative you have as a leader or as a company, the better you will do from a media, talent and branding perspective.
For leaders, what we can learn from this is how to use the story arcs that occur in our businesses to win fans, attract talent and retain the good people we have. Our brains are hardwired to learn from stories. Stories give meaning to  what we do and why we do what we do. The better narrative you have as a leader or as a company, the better you will do from a media, talent and branding perspective. 
The hero’s journey is only one of several story constructs. It begins with you discovering your origins, reason for taking a specific path, lessons from the obstacles in your journey towards success and achievement, and who you did it with.
Start discovering who you are, what brought you where you are now, who helped or are helping you; discover your ‘quest’ and identify present and future struggles on this journey. Since our pre-historical days of re-telling stories of a hunt for the mammoth over firesides, we have been fascinated by stories and how they can inspire and be our lifelong companions in success.
Not all of us can climb big mountains or win Olympic gold medals. But I am reminded of one young boy (now young man). In 2001, when my comeback story and success against the odds made the cover of the Readers Digest magazine; reaching over 35 million readers in Asia alone; the story adjacent to mine in the handy-sized magazine was that of 10-year old Ryan Hreljac from Canada.
Concerned by the terrible lack of clean water and sanitation in Africa, and inspired by a visit to his Uganda pen pal; he started Ryan’s Well, a fund raiser to build a well for an African village. He used his pocket money, did small fund raisers, spoke to many people, in order to get the project going. In the past 15 years, this has become Ryans’ Well Foundation, and has benefited thousands of lives and built hundreds of wells and sanitation facilities in Africa.
The hero’s journey is often one of our own creation; fuelled by a vision or a goal, and depending on what we face on that journey, it can be straightforward, or downright ‘heroic’ – something that surpasses expectations, and the odds. Make your own journey and be your own hero today. 
David Lim is Asia’s Leadership Guide, and best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has helped organizations build teams and grow leaders. Send him a note today at to subscribe to his leadership e-newsletter.


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