What can the sporting and military worlds teach us about leadership?

The sporting and military worlds share certain similarities – teams of people getting behind shared common goals, strong leaders with the final say on everything from recruitment to operations, orders being followed without question (or with harsh consequences should they be) and high performance being the difference between winning and losing, or even life and death.

But can the seemingly antithetical corporate world (despite often being described as ‘cut and thrust’ or ‘dog eat dog’) learn anything from its strictly performance-based sporting and military cousins?

Before a corporate career that has seen him work for an investment bank and now as commercial manager at TotallyMoney, a credit comparison service, Charlie Gordon was an officer in the British army. He led troops on exercise as a reconnaissance troop leader and was deployed to Afghanistan as a forward air controller with the Royal Marines.

The military requires a certain sort of person, says Gordon: “You need to be adventurous, athletic, energetic, courageous, outgoing; you need grit, discipline, self-motivation, tolerance for hardship, teamwork; officers or NCOs need man management, leadership, calmness under pressure, communication, tactical and strategic planning.”

These are all qualities and characteristics that are easily identifiable in a sporting setting also. A further key aspect in both military and sport is the need for quick-thinking and decision-making, according to Michael Caulfield MSc, a director and sport psychologist at Sport Edge, founded by ex-England cricketer Jeremy Snape as a consultancy to help corporate executives, and elite athletes and sports coaches to achieve higher levels of performance.

“Sport is very decisive and disciplined; it changes daily, hourly, or by the minute, you have to be incredibly adaptable. Whereas in a large organisation, a management structure can dwell, procrastinate and take too long. Sport does not allow you that luxury, you must adapt and be very quick in your decision making and your leadership style,” says Caulfield.

Meanwhile, apart from strong-arming – a leadership strategy Gordon didn’t adhere to in the military – Gordon says there is a time and a place for everything he learned in the forces. “The innate skills you learn to channel effectively: discipline in everything – if you say you will do something, you get it done no matter what, on time and to a high standard; communication – ensuring everyone knows the plan is working towards the same goal; leadership – getting people to buy into the plan, whether it is yours or not.”

The Spurs effect

Meanwhile, Caulfield uses Tottenham Hotspurs Football Club as a modern-day allegory for a well-performing business.

“Spurs are the best run club in the country. They’ve created a very stable environment, they’ve kept all their major players and as a business, they’re running beautifully – they’ve recruited and built their own talented workforce, they’ve improved them and now they’re huge assets, but the key is those assets want to stay for the atmosphere and the environment.

“This is where football coaching is different to being a company CEO – in football the manager or head coach is very influential. Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino sets the tone for how Spurs grow as a business and play their football. In businesses, the chairman or the CEO do not have the same overall input on a daily basis.”

On a human level, the more effort the players put into being excellent, the more they enjoy their jobs because they’re improving. “I think most people are driven by getting better at what they choose to do, whether in sport or business,” says Caulfield. “Being paid fairly isn’t the main motivation, it’s simply being better at what you do and being able to express yourself in the right environment, that’s what we crave.”

Another quality that Caulfield believes the corporate world could learn from sport is the ability to handle and develop talent. “The leading coaches and managers are geniuses at tapping into individuals’ motivations for going to work, understanding difficult personalities, they can read them, understand their behaviour and their flaws. High-achieving people tend to be a little bit tricky, that’s why they’re high-achieving, they’re not satisfied with the norm or being average, they want to be excellent or the world’s best at what they do, which requires a degree of understanding from management.”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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