Phil Brunkard, Senior Analyst
At the Forrester Tech & Innovation Forum 2021, I discussed how leaders can learn from elite sports with leadership coach and author Drew Povey. Drew shared his insights and experiences from working with British rugby and soccer leaders, including Warren Gatland (former Wales and British & Irish Lions rugby coach), Stuart Lancaster (former England rugby coach), Stuart Pearce (former England U21 coach and manager of the Team GB soccer team at the 2012 Olympics), and current England soccer manager Gareth Southgate. But you don’t have to be a rugby or soccer fan to learn from these leaders.
There are many parallels between business and elite sports leadership and coaching. The elite sports leader must create a vision, set a strategy, and recruit the right people for the team’s success. In fact, the single most-defining feature connecting elite sports and business leadership is about understanding people. Both must inspire and empower individuals to do their best work to achieve the results the leader desires. Great leaders, in sport and business, are great coaches who help high-performers reach their full potential. They are the connective tissue that pulls together talent with various skills and backgrounds into a team that produces extraordinary results. They must demonstrate a focus on authentic leadership, creating an environment of trust, loyalty, and empowerment.
One notable difference, however, is that while most executives work behind closed doors, sports coaches do it in plain sight. They are constantly under public scrutiny, media attention, and criticism from so-called experts. Imagine, as a business leader, if your every decision was in the spotlight from a stadium full of thousands of stakeholders and a constant stream of social media critique. Sports leaders must be resilient and confident in their own abilities and their strategy to deal with such external pressures.
What all these successful sports coaches have in common is that they are authentic leaders. As Stuart Lancaster states, authentic leaders create an environment in which the team will willingly follow you because they believe in your vision. And you can’t be a leader without followers. They also have what Drew Povey calls the “leadership factor,” which describes what it takes to be an authentic leader. They all demonstrate the characteristics of curiosity, changeability, charisma, connection, confidence, collaboration, and courage:
Gareth Southgate describes high performance as “the never-ending quest for perfection.” To achieve high performance, leadership must be intentional, consistent, and continuous. Successful leaders set out every day to guide their organizations with intention and humility, knowing that their ability to deliver lies in their proficiency to inspire, motivate, and encourage their employees. Southgate not only leads at a team level, but also invests significant time in one-on-one coaching conversations across the whole team to understand each player at a personal level. He discusses what motivates and inspires them and deals with their individual concerns. Often, within business, leaders use one-on-ones solely for annual performance management without sufficient focus on coaching. One-on-one coaching should be a ritual — not an event just to play lip service to performance management reviews.
To achieve high performance, leaders need to set direction, and employees need to feel empowered to make their own decisions. In elite sports, leaders focus on preparation and planning for a tournament or a game, developing their strategy and tactics for the game(s), their “game plan,” often months and weeks in advance. We tend not to see this in business to the same extent. As Warren Gatland states, the coach’s job is all about final preparation and planning the week and day before the event. Success on the field is then achieved when you have a strong captain and senior players empowered to guide the whole team to fulfill the plan. As is often the case, the game does not always go to plan. The team then must be able to adapt to changing circumstances, relying on the coach’s guidance and supported by the senior players’ experience to help turn things around. This is where trust is crucial. Leaders don’t exist without teams, and a leader is only high performing if they are raising the overall performance of the team. Southgate also invests in developing the leadership skills of his captain and vice captain.
Each of these successful elite sports leaders demonstrate authentic leadership. They focus on their people and how well they work together as a team. They create an empowering environment built on trust, loyalty, and honesty. As leaders, they invest their time in getting to know their teams and, just as importantly, ensure their team gets to know each other. According to Southgate, a player will push their performance higher when working alongside someone they consider a friend. Developing a culture where people feel valued, trusted, and engaged requires strategic implementation and direction from leadership. When these elements come together, they create what Forrester calls a PEAK environment (poised, enlightened, adaptable, knowledge-seeking), where employees are emotionally healthy and engaged:
There’s clearly more to successful leadership in elite sports than that image of the coach shouting from the sidelines.
Stay tuned for updates from the Forrester blogs.
Stay tuned for updates from the Forrester blogs.
This post was aggregated from Forrester (https://www.forrester.com).