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Sporting lessons can help to forge business success admirer

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"Let’s impress [briefly] the new boss"

Image: Sporting lessons can help to forge business successSoccer teams often improve their performance for a few matches after a new manager has been appointed. If this man proves no better than his sacked predecessor, the side will quickly revert to type as players who had tried briefly to impress the new boss begin to backslide.

The traditional view of sporting leaders is of controlling, authoritarian types who rule by fear. One of the greatest soccer managers of all times, former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, might superficially give the impression of being cut from that cloth. However, if a fierce temper and reputation for throwing tea cups in the dressing room had been all he could offer, he would never have achieved his remarkable success.

Sportsmen and women in any field will not respond indefinitely to the stick. Once they realize that their boss has nothing more to offer and that they will be castigated whether they perform well or not, they will lose any incentive to raise their game – or even to perform adequately.

In recent years, perhaps due in part to a growing awareness that sports leadership is much more sophisticated than sticks and occasional carrots, business leaders have shown an increasing interest in learning from sport. As a result, a growing number of sportsmen and women, and especially their coaches, have begun to cross the sports-business divide and offer their insights and advice elsewhere. Back in 2005, a five-party series in the Sunday Times newspaper was devoted to what business can learn from sport, using interviews with the likes of Sir Clive Woodward (rugby union), Jurgen Grobler (rowing) and Sir Bobby Robson (soccer).

Similar challenges

Sport, like business, is highly competitive and success depends on striving continuously to outperform the opposition. As the research here shows, there are similarities between the challenges faced by business and sport and there are lessons that the former can learn from the latter – particularly in terms of bringing about change and developing staff.

In both worlds, the real key to excellence is mental toughness. That’s not to underestimate the importance of talent; rather to say that elite performers thrive on pressure, when the heat is on them. Great sportsmen and women usually give their best performances when there is most at stake. Elite performers also use competition to hone their skills and the business world can surely learn much from an arena in which there is such a strong focus on getting people, whether individually or as part of a team, to perform to their maximum ability.

Of course, successful businesses should have a strong corporate culture. There is much to learn from Australian cricket which has during the last 20 years promoted positive leadership behaviour, sense of purpose and a vision which inspires and motivates participants.

"Ideal performance state"

The performance pyramid model, devised by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in 2001, embraces the idea that world-class performance by business leaders requires leadership which is fully aligned with an athlete’s, or a team’s, fundamental values, beliefs and mission. All corporate performers must have an ‘ideal performance state’ which can only be attained if leaders develop not only their physical, emotional and mental capacity, but also their spiritual capacity – by which they mean "energy that is unleashed by tapping into one’s deepest values and defining a strong sense of purpose." Loehr and Schwartz claim to have tested their approach on "thousands of executives" and believe that it has improved dramatically their work performance, and enhanced health and happiness.

There would appear, then, to be areas in which sports leaders are making more impact than their business counterparts, including willingness to embrace a holistic approach to leadership development. The common themes in the leadership literature of sport and business appear to be characteristics (the personal traits necessary), capabilities, context, and the challenges leadership brings, especially the need for continuous improvement.      

It is this final theme on which the researchers here concentrated, examining the work of eight leading coaches, seven in England, one in the Republic of Ireland and including two who operate in both the sporting and business worlds.

Handling money matters

Among key issues raised in connection with these challenges is financial uncertainty. All the coaches maintained that planning ahead and being prepared were key qualities to deal with financial and other forms of uncertainty. This was particularly the case with coaches involved in training athletes for the 2012 Olympics in London, where funding could become an issue after the event, whatever the outcome. Kate, a sports psychologist, explained: "One of the problems when a major championship comes up is that coaches are worried about their jobs…every sport has a clear-out after a four-year (Olympic] cycle."

Personal challenges are hugely significant, too. In sport, as in business, the fundamental challenge for leaders is to set and achieve ambitious goals. This requires the necessary passion and belief in the goals before one can hope to inspire others in their pursuit. For all eight coaches, managing change is a core skill, whether it’s a case of setting goals, developing athletes to improve their performance, adjusting to the various stages of competition or dealing with the vagaries of managing financial arrangements which often involve issues beyond their control.    

Jonny in France

Coaches need to embrace change in the athletes, mainly young people, who can change very quickly, both emotionally and physically. As they mature, their values can change, and some of these changes can result from the physical toll of sport. The rugby union player Jonny Wilkinson, a member of England 2003 World Cup winning side, suffered a series of devastating injuries and replaced the intense dedication to his sport with a more relaxed lifestyle playing in France. Such changes can result in the values of coach and athlete moving out of step, undermining the effectiveness of the relationship.  

Some sports people can, of course, become fixated on false values as fame beckons. Faced with these challenges, the authentic leader has to stay true to his or her values, working only with people and organizations who share them. At other times, funding might not be available to enable them to do what they want, or choose who they can work with.

Both sport and business operate in very competitive domains in which no one stays on top if they stay the same. On both sides, individuals must keep getting better to stay on top and the greatest sports champions, (for example Roger Federer, and Venus and Serna Williams) tend to develop new attributes of guile and mental toughness which enable them to stay at the top when their peers are beginning to fall away.

Making it look easy

Champions, as one sports psychologist turned executive coach put, are not necessarily more gifted than others, but they are masters of managing pressure, tackling goals and driving themselves to stay ahead. They often make it all look easy. Likewise, "charismatic" business leaders can appear to operating with ease, but years of graft and research have gone into creating that impression.

You can probably be the right coach at the wrong time. One coach was asked to work with a young and successful athlete who was not yet ready to accept the extra support, although later a good partnership developed between them. In tennis, the high turnover rate of personal coaches is probably due as much to the player’s need for different styles of coaching at different stages of his or her development (Andy Murray comes to mind) as it is to ego and temperament. Recognizing and adapting to changing circumstances is therefore as essential to leaders in sport as it is in business.  

It does not follow entirely that business can always learn from sport, especially when contrasting running an organization with developing team and individual athletes. But there do appear to be areas where sporting leaders have developed skills and aptitudes further and to better effect than their business counterparts. Most prominent among these is the ability to welcome and bring about change which lies at the heart of the coach’s role.

Not just an elite group

A final parallel between the sporting and business worlds is worth making. Senior business managers have been most vocal about transferring lessons from sport to their world. Some of these people might perceive themselves as "elite" leaders in the same way that we have "elite" athletes. However, neither field is restricted to any elite body.

Almost all managers in organizations have a leadership role, especially those responsible for delivering services and making products. The lessons of how to motivate individuals and teams to keep improving are equally relevant for those who do not sit at the top table, whether in the company or on the sports field.

This is a shortened version of "What can business leaders learn from sport," by Bernard Burnes and Helen O’Donnell. It was originally published in Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal, Volume 1, Number 1, 2011.