Why Athletes Make Better Leaders

by Kim Stangle

I wasn’t much of an athlete growing up, but in the last 10 years, I’ve taken up two new sports:  tennis and rowing.  The two couldn’t be more different, but both have taught me valuable lessons that I carry with me every day.

To succeed in rowing, nothing is done individually.  In fact, even the individual mindset that you’re better than anyone in your crew is dangerous.  There is, of course, a leader … the coveted stroke seat.  But, beyond that, success comes from trusting your teammates and working together toward a single goal.  One of my favorite quotes from the book, “Boys in the Boat” illustrates perfectly what it means to work as a team:

“The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before.”

That was the author, Daniel James Brown, talking about the nine Americans and their quest for a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but it could’ve just as easily been a CEO reflecting on his/her staff.

On the other hand, tennis is a very individual sport.  Unless you’re playing doubles, you’re solely responsible for your successes and failures on the court.  So what’s the business case for playing?  To succeed at tennis, you have to be able to make split-second decisions.

In fact, there’s even a documented four-step process:

  1. Perception
  2. Decision
  3. Execution
  4. Feedback

You don’t need to be Einstein to see the correlation to leadership.

Having said that, next time you interview a potential job candidate, consider asking them about their sports background.  Playing sports creates accountability, builds competition, drive and the need for constant improvement.  You develop camaraderie that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  Can you think of better qualities for your company’s future leaders?

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