Leadership versus management – world of sports vs world of business

 I’m quite involved since many years in coaching a number of 15-20+ year olds in sail racing, at fairly  advanced  levels. Because of this role, as well as due to my own background in my youth as a practitioner of different sports (in some cases also at fairly
advanced levels) I believe I have a pretty good exposure to the
leadership/coaching approaches within the sports community.

I’ve also done quite a bit of reading on how successful sports coaches
at top levels approach their task.

It’s interesting to compare the approaches to  leadership/coaching of
the world of sports to those of my professional life, i.e. the world
of business.

First, both worlds (sports, business) are ultimately driven by
results. Unless you are able, as a team, or as a leader/coach, to
deliver results, you are not going to prevail for long in a highly
competitive environment. This goes for both worlds.

However, this is pretty much as far as it it goes in terms of
similarities. In my experience, there is a huge difference in how the
desired results are to be achieved, i.e the “best practices” wrt. how
a manager/leader/coach actually operates on a daily basis in order to
deliver results are vastly different between the world of sports and
the world of business.

Even though we might talk a lot about “coaching”, “mentoring” and
“leadership” in the business world, my personal experience is that the
vast majority of businesses are light years beyond the sports world
when it comes to leadership and coaching practices. For sure, every
major organization worth it salt have plans, practices and processes
that carry some kind of “coaching” label, things like individual
development plans, annual performance reviews, quarterly F2F-meetings
with your boss etc, but in my experience these things are mostly for
show, seen as a “tick-in-the-box”, something that the corporate red
tape demands, not something actually at the core of daily operations,
nor are they something that significantly impact the daily operations.
In the world of business, the role and responsibility  of a manager
(or leader) seems in any practical sense to be much more concerned
with monitoring the execution of daily operations and compliance with
defined processes than on coaching/mentoring and gradually enhancing
the capabilities as well as the motivation of the team.

Thus, the business world at large seems to regard the various
“players” in the team as mere “production units”, human automations
that are expected to execute the defined corporate processes in
pursuit of the a priori agreed upon results and rewards (salary etc).

Basically, the major motivators in use are those of the carrot and the
stick. Other types of motivators, e.g. such that go way deeper in an
attempt to reach and impact the “hearts & minds” of the players, are
rarely seen, particularly today.

In the world of sports, coaching is definitely at the core of “the
business”: coaching is not an afterthought, performed now and then
“just because the process description says so”, instead, coaching and
mentoring are part of the daily work that the leader/coach performs
with his/her team. the coach is expected not only to define the
overall objectives, strategies, tactics and plays, i.e. the technical
aspects, but to focus at least as much on motivating, mentoring,
guiding,supporting and actively building and enhancing the
capabilities of each individual in the team, as well as building the
team as a group.

That is, there’s at least as much focus on the “soft” (human capital)
aspects as there is on the technical/hardware aspects.

The world of sports have long since realized that in order to win,and
to get 100% out of each individual,  it will not do to regard the
“players” as production units, that the carrot & stick mentality will
not suffice (well, for sales guys it actually might! 🙂 for
consistent long term results, in order to become persistently
successful you will have to win over the hearts and minds of the
individuals so that they will actively agree upon and voluntarily
commit to the overall objectives of the team.

Results and rewards should be the outcome of successful preparation,
execution and performance, not the prime means of driving “the

I find this difference wrt the view on leadership/coaching of these
two worlds very interesting, and I believe the business world has a
lot to learn from the world of sports. In particular, businesses
should be interested in learning from the sports world that overall
“system performance” can differ orders of magnitude between teams that
are motivated, commited and have their hearts and minds “in the game”
compared to those that only operate based on carrots and sticks.


About swdevperestroika

High tech industry veteran, avid hacker reluctantly transformed to mgmt consultant.
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