Michael Johnson: Understanding what it takes to succeed

There has never been a runner like Michael Johnson. After smashing the world records in the 200m and 400m races at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the American was dubbed “Superman”. Those feats were achieved with an unorthodox, upright sprinting style that marked him out from rivals on the track.

While Mr Johnson’s celebrity has waned in his home country since those games, the 52-year-old is a regular presence on UK television as a BBC pundit on athletics events. His cool and analytical commentary provides a sharp contrast to cheerleading British colleagues. 

Best known as an athlete and pundit, he spends the majority of his time running a business that he founded in 2007: Michael Johnson Performance. He is president of the eponymous institute in the Texas town of McKinney, considered one of the world’s leading centres for developing speed in athletes. 

“I didn’t take anything for granted, [thinking that being] an Olympic gold medallist qualifies me to be a great CEO,” he says, over a phone call from his oceanside home in Malibu, California. However, the centre is built around a personal insight: in top-level sport, exceptions are the rule. “I need to stay in my lane, which is understanding the athlete and understanding what it takes . . . to succeed. From there, I had to play the lead role.”

Michael Johnson celebrates winning the 400m in a world record time at the Atlanta Olympics © Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

Those who arrive at Mr Johnson’s centre are given a lengthy “diagnostic assessment”, such as tracking their running stride using high-definition, motion-capture cameras and testing how they exert force into the ground against a database of millions of other sportspeople. This precise information is fed to a team of sports scientists, orthopaedic surgeons, strength coaches and physical therapists who create a new, personalised training programme for each person. 

The aim is to find a “needle in a haystack”, says Mr Johnson, identifying how an already high-level athlete can “eke out another 0.2 per cent of power and speed”. In elite sport, that can be the difference between winning and losing. 

“My team understands [the task] because the president of the company looked different than all the other sprinters, but turned out to be the best there ever was,” he says.

The business, which employs about 20 to 30 staff, was forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic. It has since reopened, as athletes prepare for the restart of sporting leagues around the world, though this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo has been postponed until next year.

Clients have included Premier League team Arsenal, English rugby union players and elite sportspeople in US leagues, such as the NFL and NBA. (Mr Johnson won’t be drawn on the privately held company’s financials, saying only it makes “millions” of dollars in annual revenue).

The authority to provide tailored advice to world-class athletes has given Mr Johnson his route into the business world. Others hope to learn from him. Last week, he was one of the speakers at the “Beyond Sport” workshop series, providing those watching online with “insights that will motivate you to effectively lead your team”.

With such seminars, Mr Johnson treads the path of other sporting greats that have become sought-after business gurus. The former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has lectured on executive education at Harvard Business School, while ex-heavyweight champion boxer Wladimir Klitschko has designed a management programme at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. 

What corporate lessons will Mr Johnson impart? “People want to understand, ‘This guy just continues to win: why?’,” he says. “I think that there are people in their own lives who want to win as well.” 

When I press Mr Johnson for some specific tips, he continues to speak in generalities. This includes the suggestion to adopt “a different mindset and a different approach” once at the top of a chosen profession. Perhaps Mr Johnson provides less of a practical manual to working life and more of an inspirational figure for those seeking to reach the top in their own trade. 

Michael Johnson’s unique upright sprinting style helped him become a four-time Olympic champion © Haslin Frederic/Corbis/Getty

“What makes those lessons identifiable for people is that they saw me compete in the ‘96 Olympics, break the world record and make history,” he says.

Recent events attest to his inspirational appeal. Two years ago, Mr Johnson suffered a serious stroke following a workout. It was a bitter shock for a man with a clean-living attitude. He approached weeks of physical therapy like training for an Olympics, mounting a full recovery. 

“I recall days . . . I didn’t see any improvement and actually, I felt worse,” he says. “[It was like when] I was out there busting my butt on the track and that I didn’t gain anything, but I knew that I was actually getting better.”

Where Mr Johnson diagnoses a failure of leadership is at the top of his sport. World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, has been dogged by corruption investigations and tarnished by drugs cheating.

How should athletics respond to these myriad problems? Mr Johnson sounds exasperated: “Honestly, I just don’t know what else I can say at this point that I haven’t said.”

When Mr Johnson and I speak, it is prior to the outbreak of protests following the police killing of George Floyd. Since then, he has been vocal in his support of antiracism activists, alongside other prominent African-American athletes, such as basketball star LeBron James.

“Racism isn’t only about White supremacists or a President using them for his benefit,” he wrote on Twitter this month. “Or only just about Black men murdered by police. It’s primarily about the daily experience of Black people unable to live “The American Dream” because of institutionalised racism in America.”

He has long called for big reforms to a sport that creates a handful of global stars during each Olympics, but where most athletes struggle to make a reasonable living. 

Mr Johnson suggests following the example of tennis and golf, which has created a roster of annual sporting events that gain avid followings. The biggest names become multimillionaires, but there is reasonable reward for hundreds of professional players too. 

To do this, the sport needs to hire executives and experts who are “not afraid to break things” and reimagine the way it operates.

Leaders are only as good as the team they nurture, Mr Johnson suggests. His victories on the track were guided by a group of coaches. His business is based around building a team of experts that can provide constructive criticism to other sportspeople. 

The same analysis is required in the sport in which Johnson first blazed a trail. “What will need to be broken [in athletics]?” he asks. “I don’t think anyone knows because I don’t think anyone’s done that work.”

Three questions for Michael Johnson

Who is your leadership hero?

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy, the first African-American coach to win an NFL Super Bowl. He was fired by the team he built to be championship calibre. They went on to win a Super Bowl the next year and many credit him. However, he went on to another team and eventually won the Super Bowl there. Most importantly, he understood how to motivate and get the best out of young men through understanding them as opposed to trying to make them understand him.

If you were not a CEO/leader, what would you be?

I honestly cannot imagine myself being anything other than what I am. I am very fortunate to be doing exactly what I want to do and what I enjoy.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

Team sport athletes are employees of their team. As an individual sport athlete it was up to me to hire a team of coaches, physical therapist, agent and assistant, and hold them accountable. I realised to get the best from every one of those individuals I employed, I needed to create a supportive, cohesive and teamwork atmosphere where everyone knew their role, stayed in their lane and supported one another to achieve the objective.