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Sport isn’t like business? Wrong: elite athletes and great leaders do share common ground


With the Olympics still fresh in memory and our football codes now into the finals, people start using sporting metaphors to push their perspective on personal efficacy, development and leadership (and, yes, the irony of that is not lost on me!). Sporting heroes are examined in their approach, application, performance, support, bearing, attitude and every other possible angle for the slightest insight on how it can be applied to business.

The most common comeback we hear to this approach is “sport is not like business”. After all, our football teams train all week for a single, tightly-focused, performance each weekend. In Olympic meetings, athletes train for four years for handful of 10 second (or less, if you’re Usain Bolt) races. This – so the argument goes – is nothing like business or leadership, where you are “performing” all day, every day. Johnathan Thurston is great to watch, but he has nothing to teach me about business performance as a leader.

Yet this argument is wrong – elite athletes do have something to teach you, but not what you may think.

You see, you’re not performing as a leader all day, every day at work. For the vast majority of leaders, their people know what to do most days and rarely need to turn to you. Sitting at your desk, punching keys on a device, might be important, but it is not leadership.

Leadership performance is tested in the arenas of conflict, change and adversity. These things don’t turn up all the time at work.  But, when they do, that’s when your people take note and look squarely at you to see how you respond: right now, and in the moment. And you’d better get it right!

Like the brands of elite athletes, your leadership brand is the sum of your performances over several short sprints, in high pressure, high stakes environments, watched by people you need to impress.  Unlike Bolt’s world, where races are planned and scheduled, leaders don’t always know when they will be tested.  Athletes know what time their races are scheduled and work to be at their peak at the right time.  A leader doesn’t always know when something will go wrong, when conflict will flare up, when a market will drop or when something new will come out of left field.  How do we train for that?

In these days of increased uncertainty, volatility, ambiguity and complexity, the cutting edge of leadership training is training for the unexpected.  This has two components:

  • Like footballers practicing sideline goal kicks, basketballers practicing “we’re 2 behind with 30 seconds on the clock”, or hockey teams practicing a defensive shut out with two players in the bin, figure out your toughest scenarios. These are your “1 per cent-ers”. Practice them (don’t think about them, practice them) ahead of time.
  • Build your capacity to work productively – and at your best – in discomfort.  In the cauldron of elite sports, there is often little talent separating the world’s top 10.  Who wins on a given day can be down to how well they can perform in pain or stress.  It’s the same for leadership. Your conditioning training should consist of getting outside your comfort zone, as much as you can. This will enable you to call on your best game when it’s needed.

Perhaps athletes do have a lot to teach us about training and development. Johnathan Thurston’s training regime is brutal to get to the top of his game. What does yours look like?

About The Author

Chris Maxwell is co-founder at 10,000 HOURS a firm specialising in helping leaders work in uncertainty.