Off the Ice: A Lesson in Leadership from Figure Skater Christine Gao

Knowing when to lead and when to let go is often a difficult transition for leaders of organizations. They may have achieved some level of success in their endeavors; yet they want to do even more. However, sometimes the better decision they could make is to recognize they’ve done their best and begin a new chapter.

Champion figure skater Christine Gao’s decision to retire and “start college all over again” illustrates this point. Gao first enrolled at Harvard University in 2012, but decided to take a yearlong leave to train full-time in hopes of qualifying for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Unfortunately, she didn’t make the team.

Undaunted, Gao took to the ice again in 2015 to compete for one final season “just for the joy of it.” Now that her career is officially over, she’s back at Harvard. “There’s more to life than skating,” Gao told Harvard Magazine in a recent interview.

After a total of 14 years on the ice, she has no regrets: “I’m just happy with how everything happened,” Gao said. “I did everything I could in the sport, and I feel really good about it.”

In her words, there’s an important lesson for all of us in leadership roles. Once you’ve contributed all that you can to an organization, sometimes the best way to lead is to let go.