Leadership lessons from the world of sport

Hope. Commitment. The highest aspirations. Setbacks. Whether you’re a devoted fan of sports or not, you have to agree that athletes and sporting events can be a treasure trove of leadership lessons.

As the Winter Olympic Games open tomorrow in Sochi, Russia, there’s a wealth of news coverage on the athletic competitions to come as well as the personal background stories of athletes from all over the world. Consider:

1. Taking the long view. People train for years—literally a lifetime of preparation, in many cases—for a few moments of glory. Sadly and ironically, the difference between a gold medal and a footnote mention may be a fraction of a few seconds. The whole equation is a remarkable demonstration of the meaning of time and opportunity in a way that most of us don’t experience first-hand.

2. Focus on the horizon. Those of us in the nonprofit management and leadership field bemoan the unfortunate way that too many professionals in our sector are stuck in a hand-to-mouth, tactical, operational mode. What’s your long-range “gold medal” strategic goal and how can you spend more energy defining it and acting accordingly?

3. Dreaming big. Olympic competitors show us that we humans have an astounding capability to meet the standards that we set for ourselves. For an athlete, there is no higher bar. Are you settling for far less, on a personal level, or as an organization? What are we afraid of?

4. Who are Olympians? They are ordinary people who strive to perform in extraordinary circumstances. They show the rest of us the very best of what our species is capable of—modeling what we’re supposed to look like (literally and figuratively).

5. A higher form of celebrity. Every year of Olympic games produces its superstars and medal-winners who have their time in the spotlight. However brief, it’s a welcome shift from our bizarre climate of reality television where too many unimpressive people are only “famous for being famous.”

Meanwhile, a few people here and there in Colorado were interested in this year’s Super Bowl. Our beloved Denver Broncos were shocked and humiliated by the Seattle Seahawk’s powerful victory, an experience which offered more than a few leadership and communications considerations as well.

6.  Teamwork. One could argue that too much focus throughout this football season was on our legendary quarterback, Peyton Manning, and not enough on the rest of the players. Behind the headlines, though, and certainly in their devastating loss at the Super Bowl, the real story was about several dozen players and coaches who excelled (and, sadly, on that particular night, came up short) in different roles. Manning didn’t make the season alone and certainly didn’t lose the Super Bowl on his own. The Seattle Seahawks’ season also jointly created a momentum that propelled a whole roster of individuals to excel in a way beyond their potential as individual players.

7.  Fan loyalty. Something magical happens when a team wins a string of games and individuals rally with them, almost as if “we” are the winners. On a personal level, we feel better about ourselves, giving fodder to the academic/sociological study of how and why sporting events can mean more to people that “…just a game.”

8.  Common ground. In the days ramping up to the game itself, we were united here in our enthusiasm. There is something terrific about the way Bronco fever cares not about your age, your income, your profession, your station in life; the camaraderie was a nice contrast to the divisive, even toxic, political dialogue and posturing that seems endless throughout the rest of the year.

9.  The meaning of place. Having a few days in the national, even international, spotlight builds the winning “brand” of this place and its visibility as a place to live, work, visit, and start a business. Denver’s mayor and Colorado’s governor both took fine advantage of this limelight to talk on the national stage about the natural and economic benefits of life here. Denver’s AFC championship win actually helped distract some of the conversation away from recreational marijuana, a welcome relief.

10.  Grace under pressure. Our boys played poorly that night, but their attitude on and off the field (including the insane media ramp-up that builds for days prior to the game itself) made us proud, not ashamed, to be their fans. It’s easy to have a microphone or camera in your face when you’re a winner; the true test is when you’re not.




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