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August 8th, 2016

Leadership and Sports

In light of this year’s summer Olympics happening in Rio right now, it seems fitting to explore business leadership from a sports perspective.

There are a number of questions you could ask regarding this crossover. For instance, are there actually lessons that businesses can learn from sports and sports leaders, or are they simply two different worlds? Who do you look to in sports for leadership - is it the coach, or members of the team?

In answer to those questions, there are plenty of lessons that can be drawn between the two environments. It is quite easy to draw parallels between coaching leadership and management leadership. And, many of the articles that I read for this post pointed out that it is equally important to look to the athletes for leadership inspiration.

In my reading, I found that there were two overarching themes that were present in both sports leadership and business leadership. The first being:


The mark of a good leader is one who grooms and mentors the next generation. They understand that in order for the team or business to survive and thrive, there must be confidence in those rising through the ranks, that they have what it takes to succeed and lead in their turn.

In women’s soccer, Christine Sinclair (a team Canada vet) set up Canada’s record-setting first goal that was scored by Janine Beckie. That she didn’t take that first shot herself, and instead passed to her teammate, speaks to the sort of captain Christine is. She builds up her teammates by trusting them, and believing in them to get the job done.

The same lesson can be learned from Michael Jordan throughout his career in basketball. Even though he is so famously known for his individual prowess on the court, along with his outstanding work ethic, desire to compete and win, and his dedication to the game, he recognized the importance of collaboration and communication. These were skills and knowledge that he utilized to make his teammates better too. In order to win, it is rarely enough to be the best player on the court, you also have to have a cohesive team working with you.

Another quality great leaders and mentors have is the ability to inspire their team to take pride in the work that they do, no matter what it is. This encouragement of engaging those who work for you, not only benefits them individually, but the organization as a whole. The firm or team goals become the employee or teammates goals.

The second overarching theme was:

Adapting with the Times and not being Afraid to Fail

In a time of technological advances that are proceeding at what seems like the speed of light, this is an invaluable lesson. 

To quote the Great One: "Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it's been."

Classic examples of companies failing to follow this advice are, of course, Kodak and Volkswagen. The links provided are to articles that portray both companies and their failings in great detail. In a nutshell however, Volkswagen's corporate culture of fear and "no failure" ultimately led to the emissions cheating scandal. While Kodak - depending on who you talk to - either lacked the foresight to adapt to changing technologies, or fell victim to their own hubris, and thought that the way they currently did things would continue to be the best way. 

John Calipari is the University of Kentucky basketball coach. He believes that players need to “fail fast” so they can bounce back by continually getting better at experiencing their defeat, learning from their mistakes, and making the necessary corrections, in order to move on to the next challenge with a clear head. In the same article, Gail Kelly - the CEO of Australia's second largest bank - is mentioned. He has similar views on a similar strategy. He argues that failure, innovation, and success go hand-in-hand. It is how the lesson of "failing fast," and the action of getting back up with confidence is internalized, that determines your success rate.

So throughout these next two weeks, take note of the interactions between teammates, as well as those between coaches and athletes. Are they working as a cohesive unit? Is your team? And remember that even though there is only one gold medal in each event, none of the athletes are too afraid of failure to try and get it.


Sources used in this post:

Anthony, S. (2016). Kodak’s Downfall Wasn’t About Technology. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 4 August 2016, from

Blatchford, C. (2016). Christine Sinclair adds another leadership moment to her legacy of brilliance. National Post. Retrieved 4 August 2016, from 

Charbonneau, D., Barling, J., & Kelloway, E. K. (2001). Transformational leadership and sports performance: The mediating role of intrinsic motivation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(7), 1521-1534.

Ewing, J. & Bowley, G. (2015). The Engineering of Volkswagen’s Aggressive Ambition. Retrieved 4 August 2016, from

Friedberg, M. (2016). Leadership Lessons from Sports Legends. Entrepreneur. Retrieved 4 August 2016, from

Kellett, P. (1999). Organisational leadership: Lessons from professional coaches. Sport Management Review, 2(2), 150-171.

Munir, K. (2012). The Demise of Kodak: Five Reasons. WSJ. Retrieved 4 August 2016, from

Riordan, C. (2015). 4 Leadership Lessons we can learn from Sports. SmartBrief. Retrieved 4 August 2016, from