Achieve High Performance By Learning From Elite Sports Leaders

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.

Business And Elite Sports — Leadership Parallels

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.

The Leadership Factor

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:

  • Curiosity: They constantly seek out new ideas and new ways of doing things, ask why, and learn from failures. Stuart Lancaster talks about continuous learning and the importance of reading new leadership research. Nobody ever truly reaches their potential; there is always room to develop.
  • Changeability: Leaders must drive and adapt to change to ensure their organization is future fit. Great leaders recognize that progress relies on change, but not all change leads to progress. They focus on the right change for the right reasons linked back to their purpose. They first focus on why change and then determine what needs to change and how. The adaptive sports leader prepares the team for different scenarios: How will the team respond when they are down 1-0? How will they perform if they lose a player?
  • Charisma: Povey jokes that the notion of charisma as a leadership skill can weird some people out. Many people believe that charisma is a fundamental quality — you either have it, or you don’t. Becoming more charismatic doesn’t mean transforming your personality. It’s about adopting a series of practices that suit you. It’s about focusing on a positive and energetic demeanor, caring about others’ opinions, making people feel comfortable, and being influential. Picture that top coach putting an arm around a player and whispering in their ear after a game to encourage belief after a mistake may have negatively impacted results. In the business world, it’s about how effectively you motivate people in the face of setback and learn from failure to turn things around.
  • Connection: Southgate’s focus has been to connect his team with why it’s so important and such a privilege to be a player on the England team. This means being clear about what the white English shirt stands for, its heritage and its connection with both fans and the wider nation. Before, players were fearful playing for their country and the media backlash if results were not as expected — and who could blame them? Southgate’s values and behaviors, exemplified by his open letter to England fans, brought a new sense of unity among the national team, supporters, and media. He also focuses on diversity and inclusion and emphasizes how the national team is representative of modern England.
  • Confidence: This is less about being confident as a leader and more about building confidence in the team. Work with the team to remove internal barriers (lack of confidence) to create belief for what they can achieve by playing to their strengths. Eddie Jones (current England rugby coach), talks about his time managing the Japan national rugby team, who, before he joined, believed that a good result was damage limitation on the score they lost by. Losing effectively became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He focused on their strengths (speed and agility) and instilled a mindset that they can win games. Despite losing all three of their first Pacific Nations Cup matches by narrow margins in November 2012, Jones soon coached the team to their first-ever wins in Europe, beating Romania and Georgia. In Good to Great, Jim Collins describes successful leaders as having a quiet and calm motivational style, who inspire confidence in others.
  • Collaboration: Success in elite sports is not just about the individual coach but requires collaboration with depth and strength of leadership skills across the whole management team. Warren Gatland believes in empowering his coaching team to make decisions in their areas of expertise. As he says, you must trust them for the very reason you hired them. You may not always agree with their decisions, but you back them and create an open environment for challenging and validating decisions, feedback, and learning. The head coach also needs feedback on their own performance from within the leadership team.
  • Courage: A courageous leader sticks to their principles in high-pressure situations and stands for what they believe in. It’s about being authentic, resilient, having a keen sense of emotional intelligence and a commitment to purpose. In the business world, a prime example is obviously Elon Musk, who took Tesla from the brinks of bankruptcy and stern industry opposition to the trillion-dollar business it is today. Southgate, again, often faces criticism for his squad or team selections but sticks to his convictions. As he rightly states, nobody spends as much time as he does in studying games and working out what he wants from players to work together as a team to win games.

High Performance In Sport And Business — It’s About People

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.

Create A PEAK Working Environment

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:

  • Poised: Leaders create psychologically safe environments by fostering trust and respect among colleagues.
  • Enlightened: Leaders identify and develop untapped potential.
  • Adaptable: Leaders inspire confidence in employees so that they see disruption, conflict, or setbacks as opportunities to learn and improve.
  • Knowledge-seeking: Leaders hone a growth mindset for continuously improving personal and company outcomes.

There’s clearly more to successful leadership in elite sports than that image of the coach shouting from the sidelines.

Achieve High Performance By Learning From Elite Sports Leaders

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