What effective leadership in sport can teach business leaders

Leadership development through sports: Taking inspiration from Man United, the New Zealand All Blacks and Team Sky

When striving to improve leadership in the workplace, it may be best to look for inspiration beyond the confines of your office. Much can be learned from the most successful sports teams and their leaders.

Enhanced leadership through sport

An interest in sports can be more than a way to kick back at the weekend, particularly if you spend Monday through Friday taking the lead at work. Those come-from-behind victories, the long-running winning streaks, the prowess and mastery that keep us glued to the screen, none of it happens by chance and nearly all of it is the result of inspirational leadership. Those of us responsible for managing people and organizations, especially in high hazard industries, can learn a lot from how successful sports teams engineer sustained high performance. When I started taking a closer look at some of the most renowned success stories in sport - New Zealand’s All Blacks under Graham Henry (rugby) , Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson (football) , and Team Sky Cycling under Sir Dave Brailsford (cycling) - I quickly realized there were certain elements they had in common, and that these elements were easily transferable to the business world.

A surprising ingredient for effective leadership in sport

The first factor that showed up in all these sports organizations is one that has traditionally got little or no attention in the business world: humility. A key feature of Sir Alex Ferguson’s philosophy at Manchester United was the idea that no single player was more important than the team, no matter how talented that player might be. This led to some tough decisions on Ferguson’s part, but he reminded his footballers that hard work, too, is a talent. In fact, he is on record as saying he would always prefer a strong work ethic to raw talent in a player.
Humility in this sense contributes to what we might call ironclad teamwork. This is the kind of humility that the Team Sky cyclists have to cultivate in every race, realizing that only one of them can stand on the podium, but all of them are required to get him there. The All Blacks, too, actively cultivate humility in the service of teamwork. For them, it takes the form of “sweeping the sheds,” which means quite literally tidying up the dressing room after a match. No player is exempt, and performing this menial task keeps team members grounded and reminds them that humility is a central All Blacks value.
An awareness of the organization’s key values helps the New Zealanders coalesce and move as a single organism toward their shared goals. In the All Black’s culture this is called “Following the Spearhead” and is the ultimate form of teamwork. Again, no individual supercedes the team. At DEKRA, we encourage our clients to develop this sort of team spirit by urging them to define and share their core corporate values , align people with those values and achieve goals while moving as a team in the same direction.
Humility takes another form in all of these success stories as well. It is the quality that allows you to admit you don’t know it all and to seek help for the benefit of the group. In a business setting, just as in sport, showing humility and enlisting support when you need it is powerful. Leaders who show this kind of strength and self-knowledge generally enjoy more respect and greater trust among their team. In high hazard industries where asking questions and seeking out expertise can be the difference between life and death this quality is essential. In sport, the stakes are not quite as high, but for the teams I researched the leaders who opened themselves to expert advice gained an undeniable competitive edge.

Leaders in sport maximize marginal gains

Long before going on the road as a sleep coach with Team Sky, Nick Littlehales found himself in a conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson about his players’ sleep and recovery. Ferguson’s interest in any aspect that would improve performance, even aspects he himself had no expertise in, led to a collaboration in which Littlehales began to overhaul the sleep “equipment” of individual players and later the team as a whole. Beds, blankets, pillows, at home and on the road came under scrutiny. A napping lounge was created for the downtime between double up training sessions. The willingness of every member of Man United, from the top down, to give these measures a try made the difference.
Attention to detail, even factors apparently on the periphery of performance, like sleep, is another element common to these three powerhouse organizations. You can see it in the All Blacks’ concept “Champions do Extra”, which asks players to find incremental ways to improve. It is probably most famous as part of Team Sky’s marginal gains approach. When Sir Dave Brailsford came on board to revitalize British cycling he brought along a scientific methodology: improve every facet of cycling by 1% to yield a significant aggregate gain. Taking a microscope to the sport, he started with more obvious details related to the bikes themselves (seats, tyres), the cyclists’ training (biofeedback) and uniforms (lighter, more aerodynamic). But he didn’t stop there. Nick Littlehales helped with sleep, a surgeon taught players the best way to wash their hands to prevent colds, massage therapists tested which gels meant faster recovery, they painted the insides of their vans white to spot dust that might interfere with the bikes’ fine tuning. Anyone who follows cycling knows these micro-improvements led to macro-success. Inspired, we at DEKRA have developed workshops in marginal gains to show industry leaders how to examine their own organizations and encourage mini-measures that add up to substantial benefits.
A side effect of the marginal gains approach is a focus on process as opposed to outcome. When athletes fully engage in the specific behaviors that bring out their best rather than ruminating on the overarching goal of winning, they are more likely to reach peak performance. This applies to the business world as well. When members of your team bring a granular awareness to their own tasks, they are less likely to expend their mental energies wastefully and more likely contribute meaningfully to the organization’s goals.

Mastering the mind

A process-oriented attitude is embedded in the third success factor shared by winning sports teams: keeping what the New Zealand All Blacks call a “blue head”. As part of Graham Henry’s campaign to transform the team culture, he looked beyond his wheelhouse and enlisted the help of forensic psychiatrist Ceri Evans. Choking had been a problem for the team, and the goal was to find a solution by delving into how the brain works under pressure. Evans contrasted “red head”, a state characterized by panic, emotional reactivity and inefficiency, with “blue head”, a sort of ‘flow’ state of calm focus and optimal performance. Players were trained to recognize the difference in themselves and to switch from red to blue by developing personalized cues, in one case literally stomping the ground to become mentally “grounded,” in another, finding a point on the horizon to gain a sense of perspective. Another useful resource on the subject of how emotions affect decision-making is Dr. Steve Peter’s The Chimp Paradox. It’s a practical guidebook to managing your mind and points out that the response time of your “chimp” brain, as he refers to the less evolved areas, is 8 times faster than the rational mind.
Anyone who has experienced “red head” and uncontrolled emotions in the corporate world knows how ineffectual it is in both team members and leaders. I personally can recall a technically brilliant leader whose expertise was completely overshadowed by his emotional outbursts and who eventually lost his position. Working on emotional intelligence as part of a strong leadership initiative is something we at DEKRA value and promote through targeted behavioral coaching .

Envisioning your legacy

To return to the New Zealand All Blacks, the cultural transformation in the squad can be seen in the way its members are regarded in the culture at large. They have become role models, guided by the precept “leave the jersey in a better place,” which requires players to consider how their actions reflect on the current organization and those who have gone before. Fittingly, a book about the All Blacks’ success is entitled Legacy, and that is exactly what they are intent on building. It’s a good lesson for business leaders, too, one that I try to consider myself. What do I want to leave behind as a leader? A more motivated workforce? A safer work environment? I keep these questions in mind as I continue to learn about being a better leader, wherever those lessons come from - even sport!