Learnings from some of world’s best sportsmen and -women, their coaches, and seminal sporting moments.
Sport unites or polarises, intrigues or bores, engages or enrages. Pick any other emotion or sentiment, too, and sport has the power to tickle its touchpoint or pull the hair-trigger.
And it offers multiple lessons for organisations. The ways sportspeople and their coaches strive for performance, the manner of victory or the rebound from failure – these all mirror the attributes, flaws and human endeavour within companies.
Chasing a dream
Elite sportspeople accept that the seeds of greatness lie in struggle. Runners clock mile after aching mile; swimmers accumulate hundreds of laps in early-morning sessions – and then repeat the training in afternoon routines. Alpine skiing champion Lindsey Vonn has suffered dozens of serious injuries, with one near-fatal crash requiring 22-months of slow and painful rehabilitation.
The public sees the game and the performer, but there is a demanding, decades-long slog of commitment, setbacks and outright failures that shape the polished player and his or her achievements.
The story of iconic footballer Lionel Messi’s early life isn’t well known. He was signed by FC Barcelona at just thirteen, the club funding his entire family to relocate with him from Rosario, Argentina. It sounds a romantic beginning to a glorious footballing fantasy, but think of what the family went through: the upheaval of emigration, an inverted family structure in which the breadwinner was the youngest child, the end of his childhood, the uncertainty of whether the growth hormone injections would work (Messi was tiny for a 13-year old). “All the Messis cried in the taxi to Rosario airport,” Messi’s older brother, Rodrigo, has admitted, remembering how they left behind their lives. “We didn’t adapt very well. We were united, but one person did something and the others did nothing. So we all suffered in different ways.”
Purpose and ambition are key. So, too, in business: a clearly articulated, meaningful purpose correlates to better results, proved in a study by EY and Harvard Business Review which concluded that companies prioritising purpose were significantly more likely to achieve consistent 3-year revenue growth of at least 10%.
How do you start your organisation’s “season” – its financial year in corporate terms? Do you merely let the period roll in from one day to another, your workforce expected to get on with doing what they have always done? Or do you aim high, clarify goals, and phase them to pace your teams’ achievement and benchmark progress? Put simply, does your organisation’s leadership seek to win, or just to participate?
Focus and discipline
A common mistake of ambitious businesspeople, says leadership expert Morten Hansen, is to invert obsession and immersion. In striving to excel, they try to tackle everything, causing
them to have inadequate time and resource to focus effectively on anything. Do less – then obsess, is Hansen’s advice.
But the argument can also be made that it pays to build many muscles, to be open to different avenues of opportunity. Particularly regarding innovation, testing many ideas first, nurturing a handful of the more promising ones, and then investing big in only the clear winner, is an approach made famous by, among others, Apple founder Steve Jobs. “Innovation is saying no to a thousand things,” he believed.
Can sporting examples help to reconcile these conflicting business tenets?
The evidence swings both ways. Two of the world’s best-ever cricketers were the West Indian Garfield Sobers and Australia’s Donald Bradman. Sobers wasn’t supreme in any particular discipline of the game; his career epitomises a player known as an ‘all-rounder’, brilliant at bowling, batting, and fielding. Bradman, on the other hand, was a genius batsman – and contributed little else. Then again, his international career batting average was a phenomenal 99.9 – so, every time he went out to bat his teammates could be guaranteed a century of runs from him. Together with his indomitable spirit – “If it’s difficult I’ll do it now. If it’s impossible I’ll do it presently,” he often said – what more could they have asked for?
(Interestingly, Bradman was very much an all-rounder away from cricket. The game was amateur in those days, but he had own very successful stockbroking business, and was later a board director of no less than 16 companies. He could also tickle the ivories well enough to be a recording artist.)
There are other powerful learnings from David Brailsford, former head of British Cycling and multiple Tour de France winning teams. Britain had won just a single gold medal in its 76-years of Olympic cycling participation when he took over in 2002. He decided to change practices by focusing on small things: the idea was that if all the team’s cyclists were to improve every facet of activity that goes into winning a bike race by 1%, they would massively improve overall performances. He even insisted that a surgeon teach the team how to properly wash hands, the objective being to maintain peak physical health during training and reduce risk of infections in-competition.
Eking out these marginal gains translated to huge aggregated performance increments. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008 Britain’s won eight cycling golds – and a further eight four years later at the London games.
The reconciliation, then, lies in understanding, prioritising, and concentrating on the skills and attributes that make that 1% difference, and being disciplined and consistent in practising those key performance levers.
Superstars stay rooted
There’s a scene in the Netflix documentary about Pelé, for many fans the greatest ever footballer and generally acknowledged as one of the world’s all-time best sportsmen, when he is asked to reflect on the beginning of his professional career. He responds almost instantly: “I was lucky to have my Santos teammates.” It becomes clear that he still keeps in touch with some of them, journeymen club players by comparison, but colleagues for whom he remains grateful.
South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, against the odds, won gold in the 200m breaststroke at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The first thing she said when interviewed was to thank her family and coach. Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s greatest marathon champion and the only human to ever run 42.2kms in under two hours, continues to train in the spartan running camps of his native Kenya.
When winners remain grounded and grateful, retaining a sense of proportion and humility, by implication they do not take the outcome of their next match or race for granted. They are geared for ongoing high-performance. After a satisfactory year, or a successful acquisition, or a stellar client review, is your company primed for the inevitable challenge around the next corner?
Leaders mustn’t spectate – they’re needed on the field!
Think of the ultimate in a sporting tournament: an Olympic gold medal hockey match, a Rugby World Cup final, or Wimbledon centre court on a mid-July English summer’s day. Neutral spectators are present, intrigued – they’re engaged. Fans of one side or the other are passionate, committed. The pumped-up players? They’re inspired.
This has implications for corporate leadership. Are you fostering a culture that inspires performance, day-in, day-out? Are you immersed within operations, willing and able to coach and problem-solve with your teams, and to mentor key individuals?
Effective modern organisational leadership requires embracing diversity and instilling a culture of cohesive teamwork. Genuine inclusivity is vital: are women being empowered, are disadvantaged or minority groups being heard, and is recognition being given where credit is due?
In the 2019 sports documentary series Take the Podium, it’s impossible not to be moved by the restoration of pride, the recognition of achievement, flowing from the International Olympic Committee’s project to retrospectively award medals to their rightful winners.
Lithuania’s Austra Skujytė, a former decathlon world record holder, had her Olympic dreams shattered in London 2012, finishing only fifth in the heptathlon. But six years later she was upgraded to third place after post-Olympics doping tests revealed doping by the two athletes who finished ahead of her.
There’s no stadium packed with 90,000 people to applaud her achievement, but in a meaningful official ceremony many years after 2012 the emotion is palpable, and her family’s and country’s pride is clear, as Skujytė is finally awarded her bronze medal.
Proud identity, powerful performance
There is more than one lesson in the ignominy of sporting drug scandals. Doping is ultimately a shrouding of identity, a refutation of self-belief. It’s an admission that showing up as an authentic competitor will not be good enough. Whether we think of the systemic East German program in the 1970s and 1980s and the Russian Federation’s furtive drug project unveiled a few years ago, or the fraud of individuals like cyclist Lance Armstrong and Canadian Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, the conclusion is that – however long it takes – a cheating hubris comes before an inevitable, disgraceful fall.
In a global business context, there is a parallel with the Enron accounting deceit and collapse, and, in South Africa, the Steinhoff fraud. Like sportspeople, companies must play fair – or face inexorable consequences.
Towards a legacy
And so a final challenge sport reflects back to organisational leaders is the question of legacy. Winning may not be all that matters: consider American football player Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 kneeled during the playing of the national anthem in protest at racial injustice. Almost immediately he was ostracised, and his career effectively ended in its prime. Yet, five years later, many sportsmen and -women display solidarity with the cause. All English Premiership football games, for instance, start with a pause as the players – and often the referee and coaching staff – kneel. It’s become a worldwide emblem for a fairer society.
Is your organisation taking a stance, and making a contribution towards a better world?
Together is better
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” is the slogan and anthemic song of Liverpool Football Club. ‘Harambee’ is the Kenyan philosophy of pulling together, incorporated into the regimens of the hundreds of runners’ training camps across the country. Even at the elite level, community of spirit, the idea of helping one another, is the very essence of why we play.
Make it the reason why we work, too.
The basics of winning: 4 litmus test questions
Understanding identity. Individual sportspeople perform according to their personalities. Teams play to a pattern or system rooted in a vision. Optimal performance cannot happen without synchronisation between the sportsperson’s inner belief and its external expression on the field of play. Is your company’s culture tuned to perform?
Training as a habit. It’s self-evident why sportspeople train and practise. (“The harder I practise, the luckier I get,” said the enormously successful South African golfer Gary Player.) We are annoyed when our players display a lack of fitness or match preparedness; media reports of undisciplined or uncommitted training routines dismay us. Players are paid to perform, and we expect them to practise – very hard – to get better. Does your team do this at work?
Knowing the game. Context and preparation are everything; tiny details make the difference between winning and losing. Managers must know the state of play in order to set up the team appropriately and impart the right tactical instructions. (Is it a knockout game, or will a draw be enough?) Coaches must communicate vital competitive information to eke out advantage. (Our rival favours her potent backhand, but shows weak control when forced to sprint for a drop shot.) How well does your management team understand the industry and its rapidly evolving conditions?
Planning as imperative. An informed strategy, and tactical flexibility, are vital to sporting success. Boxing heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali distilled many requirements – the need for curiosity and digestion of information, for agility, patience, and then a focused determination in execution – in explaining how he would beat reigning champion Sonny Liston in their 1964 title fight: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Is your organisation able to flex its strategy, and produce power when it’s most needed?
Senior Partner and Managing Executive