3 examples what leaders can learn from team sports

It is difficult to say just how much, but football has had a major impact in building both my character and my leadership competence. For 15 years I was active as a junior and adult amateur player, I volunteered in various roles with an amateur club, and my football coach diploma was my first (and not least important!) experience in leadership training.

I believe that like nowhere else, team sports and the week-by-week analysis of the club’s ranking spotlights just how much more important the team’s success is than your own. Comparing football coaching with business leadership presents fascinating insights. I could list literally hundreds of lessons business could learn from team sports. Let me share three of them:

  • Play to your team’s strengths: Build on your people’s strengths and talents, and work on their weaknesses only to the extent that it doesn’t distract from the teamplay. Why would any effective coach consider investing a lot of effort in improving Robert Lewandowski’s skills as a defender when he is renowned for his prowess as the world’s best striker?
    In business, however, I see managers and outdated HR processes that focus on improving someone’s so-called weaknesses, even if it’s obvious − in business as in life − that a strengths-based approach is the clear path to confident, self-aware team members with higher engagement and better performance.
  • Strengthen − don’t weaken − your teammates: Players in successful sport teams know that to end the season with a championship victory, everybody’s contribution is crucial. In champion teams, it’s about supporting, motivating, and playing off the strengths of your teammates − and in-fighting, rivalry, and jockeying for position have no place there.
    According to Fredmund Malik, corporate strategist at HSG University in St. Gallen, managers in large corporations frequently spend up to a third of their time attacking others, another third defending attacks from others, and ultimately one third devoted to their job. Any sports team that prioritizes its focus the same way will face the constant threat of relegation and never have a chance at winning the title, no matter how big its players’ paychecks are.
  • Cultivate straightforward, direct communication and accessibility: Neither a coach nor a player can hide behind closed office doors, letting the assistant filter out any unwanted discussion. Coaches, their staff, and the players spend hours and hours on the pitch, they travel together to away games and training camps, share emotional moments of both victory and defeat. Inevitably, communication has to be straightforward and open.
    While business may differ in some respects, the reality is that many managers underestimate the value of corridor conversations, the spontaneous discussions at company events, the open office door (or better, their accessibility in common workspaces).

Team sports are not only a fantastic «school of life», they’re also jam-packed with lessons that can be put to good use in business!