Eight leadership lessons to look out for during a summer of sport

Jun 19th, 2024


With a summer of sport ahead of us, including the Paris Olympics, Wimbledon and the European Football Championships, we are likely to see a number of uplifting sporting success stories.  But what makes a successful sports leader and how do these traits transfer to the business world?

Gary Neville wrote a post on LinkedIn recently where he listed out lessons that he learned from Sir Alex Ferguson whilst playing for him at Manchester United, that he feels he has brought into his own successful business career. I have provided a link to it at the end of this article.

In sports and business, success comes from relying on some similar key principles including creating the right team and culture; maintaining a relentless drive; performing under pressure; utilising data; managing wellbeing; and building resilience.

Here I look at eight themes that can help business leaders develop their core to grow and succeed:


1. Making a team a family

Individual excellence doesn’t always make for team success. Often a team of outstanding talents don’t fulfil their potential as a team.

Equally, there are times when teams achieve beyond expectation because of the strong relationships built as a team.

Leicester City winning the English Premier League is seen as one of the biggest shocks in sporting history. Their goalkeeper, Kasper Schmichael, said how not just the team, but the entire club, considered themselves a family. This was led by the owner who would spend time engaging with everyone from the cleaners to the players, letting them know that they were appreciated and that they all had a role to play in helping the club succeed.

When a team sees itself as a family, every member of that team will fight for each other and push each other to be the best version of themselves.

I recall a COO I worked with in the insurance business saying that her team was like her family – that is how she sees them and treats them. She was known for building high performing teams and this accelerated her progress within a global business.


2. Setting the right culture for long-term success

The saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, by Pete Drucker is very true. It is the behaviour of a team that enables a strategy to be effective.

The New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ rugby team has achieved long term success over a period of decades. New players are presented with a book that includes details of the principles, values, standards, code of honour, ethos and character of the team, that all players are expected to live up to. The team and tactics may have adapted over the years, but the culture and principles that they behave by have remained consistent.

A female executive I worked with was brought in to streamline operations and accelerate growth at a time of several business acquisitions. She realised that a common set of core values and behaviours was needed across the business to support this. She spent time agreeing these, aligning them with the growth plan and the desired entrepreneurial mind-set they wished to instil. This foundation created a culture that would enable the business to sustainably grow.

As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, said: “If you have the right people on the bus in the right seats you can go anywhere”…. and people will want to join the bus because of who is on there.

This is why when I work with teams I spend a day creating and clarifying the value and behaviours that link into their vision – it is critical.


3. Building resilience

Professional sportspeople learn to develop a high level of tolerance for adversity. They build a mentality to overcome rejection, defeat and challenge to use it to push themselves to improve.

English cricketer Ben Stokes saw his career almost ruined following an event in his personal life. He was seen as one of the sport’s greatest future talents at the time. Following a period away from the game he came back and went on to captain his country. He was respected by teammates and opposition and in 2019 led England to World Cup victory with an outstanding solo performance in the final.

Setbacks are a part of the business journey, the best leaders learn from them to fuel future growth and success.


 4. Adapting and driving ambition

In 2024 Manchester City became the first team in history to win the top league of English football for four years in a row. Manager Pep Guardiola is known for being willing to adapt the way his teams play depending on the situation and the players within it. He has also shown that he is not afraid to change the players he uses from season to season in order to keep the hunger and ambition to succeed.

Success is great…and it can sometimes lead to complacency, so keeping ambition alive is key.

A smaller business that was part of a large acquisition was shocked by the lack of energy when a request for proposal (RFP) was received. The parent organisation had become so used to receiving them and winning them with little effort that they almost viewed it as a drain on their time. They would cut and paste presentations without any real hunger and team preparation.

In contrast, the small business would be energised every time they received an RFP and would strategise as a team on how to answer the brief creatively and innovatively so they outshone some of their biggest competitors. The lack of hunger was having an impact and they were losing their market place. Complacency had set in and, once this was highlighted, the business recognised they needed to review their approach.


 5. Performing under pressure

Sports people spend a lot of time working on developing strategies to manage stress and shut out pressure.

British heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson – the reigning world champion who will be hoping for her first Olympic medal in Paris this summer – has previously described how she maintains focus under pressure, saying: “Before a big event, I visualise every step of my performance. This helps me stay calm and focused, turning anxiety into a source of energy and strength.”​

Muhammed Ali would visualise his fights in such detail that he would be able to say how he would win and which round.  He called it ‘future history’

In business, if you have an important presentation imagine what it will look like?, what will you say?, how will the audience react?, how will you stand? Visualise your event in as much details as possible delivering a deeply engaging presentation that your audience loves. Just like Ali’s ‘future history’.

6. Mastery never ends

When I was studying the martial art Aikido I was taught that mastery never ends – you are continually learning.

Professional sportspeople are taught that rigorous training is essential to achieving excellence. They embrace criticism and setbacks as part of learning to be better.

Leaders who recognise the need for themselves and their teams to be constantly learning are often the ones who foster teams where creativity and innovation thrives. They cultivate a culture of collaboration, where employees feel empowered to develop their skills and take on new challenges.


7. Utilise data

Data analysts have become some of the most influential roles within sports teams and are now key parts of the management structure.

Brighton and Hove Albion Football team have gained a reputation for succeeding beyond expectations, because of the recruitment policy they have developed that is almost entirely based on data. It focuses on players whose individual performance data matches the data parameters that fit with how the team plays. When one player leaves, they are replaced with a player who is able to slot into their place because their data matches.

In business, seeing the value of data analysts being integrated into client facing teams is becoming more commonplace. Businesses able to differentiate themselves from competitors by using data to show future trends can demonstrate how they can help their clients succeed and make considered decisions.


 8. Understanding physical and mental wellbeing

The importance of physical and mental well-being cannot be overstated in sports – to succeed you have to be physically and mentally fit.

England Rugby coach Eddie Jones believed the team’s rigorous training programmes and focus on mental health were key components of his team’s successes. Similarly, Gareth Southgate brought a sports psychologist onto his management team when he first took over as England football manager because he believed the national team’s past failures were due to issues around mentality rather than ability.

BT has a well-developed employee wellbeing programme with more than 3,500 of its people signed up to its ‘Recharge Your Wellbeing Programme’, a month-long initiative that aims to help individuals return to good health, both physically and mentally.

There will no doubt be a number of inspiring moments to come from sports over the coming months. As someone who worked as a sport & fitness coach in the earlier part of my career, I often call on the lessons I learned then to help business leaders now.


Oona Collins works with leaders and their teams who want to achieve great things.  If you are looking to create exceptional levels of engagement and performance in your leadership team, contact Oona to begin a conversation at team@potentialplus-int.com


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For Gary Neville’s complete post on the lessons learned from Sir Alex Ferguson, click here