Managing Through Sports: Some Thoughts on Leadership
Everyone can learn from sports, especially managers and C-level executives [equivalent to program managers and agency directors in the government/NGO space - Ed.]. Have you ever noticed why one manager or executive may be better than another? In my experience, those managers or executives who were sportive and involved in team sports growing up are typically the better managers. Of course, I have no scientific evidence to prove this hypothesis, but based on my 30 years of experiential learning in different organizations, I strongly believe in this proposition.
Why do I say this? I feel that aside from the value of healthy exercise, sports (especially team sports) allow an individual to gain practice and expertise in many areas including the ability to work with others, experience with practical knowledge-sharing, the ability to delegate, a sense of community and belonging, the ability to handle pressure, the ability to multi-task and develop good time management skills, the ability to recognize others and allow them to succeed, and the ability to cope with both failure and success. Of course, there are cases where the manager may be the “ball hog” or a poor leader. But, by and large, team sports seem to hone one’s managerial skills for future use.
Let’s look at some examples. Many of the top consulting firms often hire individuals with a team athletics background. Part of the reason may be to stack their firm’s intramural teams, but I think the real essence for hiring those involved in team sports is for the reasons already cited. Certainly, consulting firms have time pressures with deliverables due, milestones to meet, and proposals to write. The ability to handle these pressures and perform proper time management without getting frazzled is an important trait for success in the consulting world. The ability to work with others, delegate, build strong bonding, and complement (and compliment) each other’s work are key elements for getting things done successfully.
How about the executive without prior involvement in team sports and possessing a kind of Napoleonic attitude? Everything and everyone must be conquered and in only the way that the executive feels. Whatever happened to team input, building esprit de corps, and working together? Without the ability to appreciate the value of team sports, the executive was later exiled similar to Napoleon.
So what can you do if you want to be an effective manager but maybe weren’t active in team sports growing up? First, you can surround yourself with those who are, in order to learn through osmosis in working collaboratively and collectively for team success. Second, think about the recognition and reward structure in your organization to encourage a “knowledge sharing is power” attitude versus a “knowledge is power” paradigm. Third, encourage others to succeed and meet their goals. And last, don’t be afraid to seek help from others, and treat everyone with the professional respect and trust that you would expect to be treated.
One caveat—if you were involved in individual sports or no sports at all, don’t worry. You can still be an effective leader as long as you think of others and not strictly yourself.
Dr. Jay Liebowitz is the Orkand Endowed Chair in Management and Technology at the University of Maryland University College. He currently plays on a summer tennis team, and previously played most sports growing up as well as coaching youth tennis, basketball, and soccer.