Do sporting analogues work in the world of business?

Another invitation to a Sporting Dinner arrived in my post this week. The speakers were once eminent sportsmen who, the organisers assure me, are going to impart their wisdom on how to build a better team to the business leaders assembled at their feet.

OK, you can tell I’m a tad cynical! Of course, I’m a hypocrite too because somewhere on my leadership development website I mention that I am also a sports coach and that this “informs” my work with executives.

But, seriously… What do you feel about the previous generations of sporting celebrities being put forward as exemplars for us all to learn from in the world of management?

I’ve been at three talks by top class athletes in the past, and in each case the organisers were promoting them as having something significant to teach me about managing people and succeeding in business. All three had quite “interesting” childhoods – one had been orphaned, another abused, and the third described the relationship with his stepfather as “characterised by violence”. They all had poor academic attainment, leaving school at 16, but showed focus when involved in individually oriented (ie not team) athletics competitions. Also interesting, all three were “adopted”, “mentored”, “spotted” by someone who then moulded them, and their performance, for a decade or so. They each described their mental preparation for events – isolating themselves, envisioning their own sense of elation when they finished ahead of the rest. They are understandably proud of their personal performance and like people to know how much personal sacrifice was necessary to achieve it. All three described the isolation they felt as adolescents when they had to train from 6:00am, were bullied as a result of falling asleep in class, were consequently mocked by their teachers, and were too tired to take part in after-school activities or just hanging around making friends.

The leaders in organisations that I come across, are certainly not all exemplary team players nor are they shrinking violets, but generally they could teach these athletes a thing or two about inspiring others to perform, about the power of a group, and about the importance of humility. They could demonstrate how a grasp of mathematics is essential to understand accounts, that business depends on written communication and the ability to read (and understand) complex documents quickly, that clear enunciation gets messages across, and that sales are made through empathy with others.

The latest example, an international swimmer, began his talk by inviting two people from the audience up on stage. He gave them his Gold and Silver medals and some cleaning materials and told them to clean them. He then spoke for 30 minutes while these two guys, rather bemused, rubbed and polished away. At the end of his talk, he took the medals back, said thanks and pointed them to their seats. Quite what this was meant to achieve I don’t know. The folks around me all seemed to feel it was an exercise in public humiliation and were very unhappy with it. Later that day, I found myself next to this paragon of success and achievement, so I tried to strike up a conversation with him. You know how, at some networking events, there are a few folks who stand out painfully from the crowd? They rarely appear animated, demonstrate no interest in other people around them, and respond to questions either monosyllabically or conversely with the verbal diarrhoea that leaves you snoring before the first sentence is over. Well, let’s just say he was one of those. I was relieved when the organisers’ PR person came over to rescue me (or was she there to protect him)!?

So, do sporting analogues work when developing leaders? If so, what are the lessons we should be learning from them? If not, who do YOU turn to for inspiration and what lessons do they teach?

Best wishes

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