There are obvious parallels to be drawn between elite sport and effective leadership: goal-scoring, teamwork, high-level performance under extreme pressure and ability to bounce back from failure among others. Moreover, sporting achievement has been frequently and continuously linked to academic and professional excellence. So what does athletic excellence teach about leadership?
Here are five lessons from the world of elite sport.
If there is one thing an athlete must be able to do, it’s focus on the prize.
The Olympic Games may only come around every four years, but the athlete has to stay married to the goal. Every day, every meal, every training session has to be geared towards a far-off future event.
Mental training is the essential complement to physical training. To be a champion, you have to think of champion, The fight can be won or surrendered in the head. In the same way, a leader has to remain focused on the goals and trust the process to get there.
“You have to speak from a place where all is possible. When you speak from a place where there’s limits, you’ve already set yourself up to fail”
– Anthony Joshua, OBE
Here is a script idea: X grows up in a quiet, leafy suburb and practices as a well-paid accountant. A stable relationship materialises and, just when all seems well … things continue along just fine. In fact, they get a puppy.
Do you want to watch this movie?
No. It’s the worst movie ever. Why? Because the interesting parts of life are always about struggle, change and transformation.
A lot has to be sacrificed on the road to success: free time, events, dates, time with family. It’s not for everyone. And even when all the effort has been made, a bigger force (economy, regulatory change, a law suit) can come and knock everything accomplished on its head.
Successful leaders are not those that put in short-term sprints of effort expecting quick and easy gains. It’s those that practice persistently and consistently, showing resilience when the winds change that finally arrive at the success terminal.
“Never underestimate your opponent”, as the saying goes.
Studying an opponent for weaknesses and planning for strengths is an essential part of competition, particularly in individual sports.
This doesn’t mean that leadership is about exploiting weakness in the character or performance of others. However, leaders encounter plenty of worthy opponents, and not all are flesh and blood.
Rejection, economic downturns, personal struggles – just some of the headwinds that can be encountered on the way. A leader must be able to recognise these as opponents that can be challenged and defeated with strategy and grit, rather than phenomena over which they exercise no control, swooping down on them in an avalanche of failure.
Everything either grows or dies. Physically, muscle must be built or actively sustained or it begins to deteriorate as the body does not want to support dead weight.
In sport, a win might be a matter of milliseconds, but it takes each and every practice, meal and hour committed to the sport over years to achieve. Those gains made in the closing seconds of a race are rarely an unexpected blast of energy or an injection of luck. They are a product of years of relentless progress.
Personal and professional success isn’t a spontaneous fireworks display. It’s a consistent and persistent ingression of energy in pursuit of a goal.
In the words of so many, it takes years to be an overnight success.
The idea that any success is achieved by individual effort alone is an illusion. Even when an athlete competes as an individual, they have behind them an entire squad: coach, teammates, training partner, friends.
Similarly, there is often a whole host of supporters that are vital to a leader’s team. Colleagues, mentors, advisers, groups, networks: these are all essentials to building a kind of spirit that can exercise leadership.
Leadership is an art in composing the best team. This doesn’t mean dealing exclusively with those that are high achievers. It means understanding individual personal and professional needs and engaging those that can offer the right support: intellectual, advisory, spiritual.
The bottom line
Think like a champion. Act like a champion. That title will be waiting for you.