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  • Writer's pictureEmma@giraffe

How lessons from the sporting world inspire leaders in business

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

There are many similarities between the sporting world and the business world: competitiveness, a drive to succeed, the importance of teamwork and collaboration to achieve a single aim. How can we take lessons from the world of sport, and apply them to leadership in the boardroom and beyond?

The Footprints of Leadership podcast has been honoured to interview two incredible sports stars in our first season. Grace Brown, featured in episode 3, is a professional cyclist for the UCI Women’s World Team Mitchelton Scott. Grace has spent the last few months competing at the highest level in Europe. Jaryd Clifford, interviewed in episode 9, is a vision impaired middle distance runner who has competed at the Paralympics and is currently preparing for Tokyo 2021. Both shared their amazing insights into leadership and how it affects them, both in and out of their sporting disciplines.

Leaders are not always the star player

In sport, as in business, leadership is about more than just being the best player or the person with the most knowledge. Leadership is a skill in itself, that requires training, self-awareness, and commitment. Grace Brown notes that, ‘in my team, our best rider isn’t necessarily a leader. Many different girls contribute to leadership in the team.’ Although in many sporting codes there will be a designated captain, sportspeople can bring elements of leadership in different ways.

Similarly, in business, the most technically skilled person may not be best placed to lead. Leadership is more often about your ability to make the right decisions, to delegate, and to trust in the expertise of your team to get the job done.

Leaders are passionate about their goals

Jaryd Clifford says that to him, ‘incredible leadership is doing the things that you love and doing it the best that you can.’ The best leaders are those who encourage and enable others to do their best, and Jaryd doesn’t believe that this can be manufactured. ‘For leadership to be truly genuine and successful, it has to come through naturally,’ he says. ‘It needs to be something that you’re passionate about.’ In business, the leaders who demonstrate their commitment to a project and to their team are the ones who experience the greatest success. Passion often has a contagious effect, and leaders who can share their love of their work with others are able to bring people along on the journey with them.

Leaders inspire and lead by example

An important hallmark of leadership is the ability to inspire others by your own actions. Grace says that, ‘it’s taking people under your wing, giving them confidence and setting a good example.’

A strong leader models the behaviour that they want their employees to emulate.

Grace says that she’s very conscious of being a positive role model to young women in sport. ‘It’s a bit hard to get your head around someone wanting to be like you,’ she admits. ‘I have become much more conscious of my actions’.

In the business world, it is vital that people in leadership positions model the behaviour and the integrity that they would like to see in their teams and the organisation more broadly. A company’s culture is often born from the attitudes of its leaders, and a good example at the highest level can affect the performance of an entire organisation.

Leaders know the importance of mental health

In sport, business, and all aspects of life, maintaining good mental health is paramount. Jaryd talks about how elite athletes can often be viewed as above mental struggle, but the opposite is true. ‘People can sometimes look at athletes and think they’re superhuman,’ he says. ‘But we get nervous and feel the pressure.’

Sportspeople know the importance of creating a good headspace to achieve their goals, and it’s a lesson that can be brought into work cultures.

Grace discusses her methods for preparing for a race: ‘I’m not superstitious in terms of a pre-race routine, but I do have things I like to use to calm myself and mentally prepare. I’ll do a breathing technique. Another quite common method in sport is using visualisation: imagining the process you’re about to undertake and imagining your success.’ Grace says that her mental training in the lead up to a race can be as important as the physical training.

In the workplace, leaders can mentally prepare for important meetings, presentations, or just a busy day using similar techniques. Many people are beginning to appreciate the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and finding ways to build this into their daily routine. For leaders to perform at their best, and enable their employees to do the same, it’s vital that they are in a positive and stress-free headspace.

Leaders are resilient through business highs and lows

Sport also offers lessons on coping with setbacks. Anyone who follows a sports team will have witnessed their highs and lows, and recognises that success may not be consistent. Grace speaks about how she has battled injury and struggled to return to her peak. But, she says, it’s important to keep perspective. ‘Just focus on the next thing that's within your control. It can become really overwhelming if you think about how far you are from your best. But if you think, “I just want to be a little bit better by the end of today” and then you think that like every day, eventually you’re where you want to be.’

Jaryd stresses the importance of not feeling like you need to tackle all problems on your own.

‘Asking for help is actually not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.’

His running journey has involved accepting his vision limitations and working with them to find success. ‘I've only been able to achieve the things that I've achieved since embracing my disability,’ he says. ‘For me, having a disability is a strength.’

Your business may have peaks and troughs due to factors completely outside your control. You could be faced with situations and circumstances that others would view as detrimental or even impossible to overcome. The important thing is to manage these changes and focus on how you can consistently improve, embracing the challenge rather than being overcome by it. As Jaryd says, ‘imperfection is a part of life.’

Leaders know the importance of work-life balance

Both sport and business share an element of feeling all-encompassing. Athletes live and breathe their chosen sport. A leader in business is constantly thinking about their company and their work. But it’s important in both areas to find a balance and make the time for your life outside of work.

Grace says, ‘one of the main things that I want to show young athletes is that there are good ways to be an elite sports person. A lot of people think that you have to be really strict and make huge sacrifices and that sport needs to be your number one thing. One of my main models is balance in my life. I want to show that to younger girls, that they can have family and friends as a priority in their life, and they can focus on all those other things that make you a fuller person. When you're happy and balanced, that’s when you're going to be a good athlete.’

Have you been inspired by these wise words from two amazing athletes? Full interviews with Grace Brown and Jaryd Clifford are available on The Footprints of Leadership podcast, along with a suite of other guests from all walks of life. Listen now on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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