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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Looking to Polish Your Leadership skills? Take a Look at These Sporting Heroes!

For me, the whole subject of leadership has been brought into focus by the great victory of Team Europe in the recent Ryder Cup golf match with the USA team and I wrote a supplementary blog post last week about it.

Thinking about the subject of leadership in sport and its consequent resonance in business there are several exceptional leaders in a range of sports who have demonstrated that one doesn’t necessarily have to be or have been a high performer in the sport but without doubt has to be a leader of extremely talented people.

If we consider Paul McGinley, the erstwhile captain of Team Europe together with Sir Clive Woodward, head coach of the 2003 England rugby World Cup winning squad, Sir David Brailsford who led Team GB Cycling to a bunch of medals at the London Olympics as well as leading Team Sky to win two Tours de France, and the evergreen Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, they all have several traits in common.

These seem to be:

·      Absolute clarity about the objectives and purpose of the campaign
·      Absolute clarity in communication that purpose to the quad
·      A ferocious and consistent attention to detail
·      Understanding that every one of the team is a very talented individual and needs to be treated as such while emphasising the team credo.
·      They all knew what success would look like

Let’s examine each of these in turn:

A Sense of Purpose.  McGinley drove his team to win the 2014 Ryder Cup, Woodward led England to an unexpected win in the rugby World Cup in 2003, Brailsford had both the Olympics and the Tour de France in mind, and Sir Alex was determined to win the Premier League and the Champions League.

None of these objectives were financially based and could easily be visualised.  The story goes that Serena Williams when a child imagined herself holding up the winner’s trophy at Wimbledon.  Tennis was merely the route to get her to that achievement.

Clarity of Communication: Great leaders are able to communicate simply and without drama the purpose, the objectives and the route to success to their teams and to imbue in them almost a calm acceptance that they would achieve that success.

Attention to Detail:  A curious one, this. On the face of it, it could be construed as micro-management but in fact when analysed, the detail involved the creation of a culture that was dedicated to giving the teams every possible advantage over the competition.

All of these leaders selected great players (with the exception of McGinley because of the rules) and then let them get on with it while giving them exceptional support at all times.

Understanding Talent:  This is a difficult one and demands a consistent approach to all the members of the team while accepting that they all have their little foibles and drivers.

Knowing What Success Looks Like: Self explanatory in each case.

It is worth re-emphasising that none of these leaders with the possible exception of Paul McGinley, were great exponents of their sport but had realised that they had the ability to develop a culture that allowed each team member to motivate themselves, to want to win.

There is the story, possibly apocryphal, of the coach of the great swimmer, Mark Spitz who was said not only could not swim but also had a morbid fear of water.  He coached Spitz to nine Olympic Gold Medals.

Business leaders could well examine how these great sporting heroes operate.  None of the criteria above are exclusive to sport; rather they express the everyday modus operandi of great leaders in any sphere of influence.

In essence they can be summarised as

·      Purpose
·      Clarity
·      Detail


Ask yourselves; do you lead your people with those in mind at all times?  Do they all know what is expected of them?  Do they all know what success looks like?

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