Great Leaders and Top Athletes: What They Do Best

Great Leaders make Great Teams

I like sports and regularly follow them. I live in Chicago and am an ardent Cubs, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks fan. What is important for me is the game, the play and the interviews afterward. I have discovered an interesting connection between the high level of athletic play and their perspectives and the high level of performance great leaders exemplify.

After the game is over, a commentator will stand, microphone in hand, and conduct a post-game interview with players. They are inevitably asked about the game, the rest of the season and how they feel. Players’ answers tend to be remarkably similar and focus on:

  • Pleasure or pain about the initial outcome,

  • Humility about their part in the win,

  • Appreciation for others who contributed,

  • Perspective about this as a part of the longer season, and

  • Acknowledgment for what’s been learned and how it can be applied to improvement

My curiosity with these conversations connects to the passion I have for the leadership/executive coaching I do in organizational settings. I see parallels between these two, seemingly dissimilar, domains. It seems to me that this perspective, whether that of an athlete or business leader, is one that reflects learning, greater emotional/social intelligence and working well together on teams.

What I mean is that playing on a team often means working to be your best and striving to bring out the best in your teammates. Michael Jordan (a Chicago favorite) is an example of an athlete who continued to improve his skills while motivating and elevating the game of his teammates. The outcome: six world championships.

In the world of business, Jim Collins, in Good to Great*, wrote about the critical attributes that distinguished those companies which outperformed their counterparts and triumphed over time with great, sustained results. Among those attributes was having a Level 5 Leader. The two defining characteristics of a Level 5 Leader are high ambition towards organizational success and extreme personal humility.

To me that sounds like the experiences of the athletes who are interviewed:

  • Being connected to the overarching goal,

  • Experiencing the joy of being/playing in the moment,

  • Downplaying their own contribution while acknowledging those of their teammates,

  • Putting the small step (victory or defeat) in context of the longer arc of the season,

  • Valuing learning and orienting towards continuous improvement in the service of greatness and goal attainment.

A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame,

a little less than his share of the credit.

- Arnold Glasow, American businessman and humorist

I’ve heard this point of view shared by wise managers over the years. Isn’t this similar to the attitude of Level 5 leaders who go beyond simply being a competent manager and an effective leader? Doesn’t this quote speak to building something based on inspired standards, something that sets others up for greater success? And doesn’t it reflect personal humility, the vision of the long(er) game and elevating the contribution of others?

I wonder how this happens. How does this pattern appear? What causes it? I think that a contributing factor is the sports coaches who work with these athletes over the years. Coaches, perhaps reinforcing the efforts of parents, instill and/or support kids developing a work ethic and discipline that socializes them towards a team-oriented perspective.

Sports, especially team sports, seems to serve as a significant socialization instrument of culture. Through its practices and ethos, we learn how to play together by the rules, to be better together, and to expand our individual perspective to the collective. We learn to embody lessons that will serve us well in life, not just on the playing field. Isn’t it interesting that we look to professional athletes to serve as our role models for the expression of higher values and our better selves? Didn’t we learn this long ago?

I’m curious about your experiences and observations with leaders, as a leader, or as a change agent supporting those leaders’ development. If you played on a team and were coached on it, all the better. What happened? What do you notice? What seems to stand out as important and meaningful to you? How does this connect to you as a leader now? Please share them as comments in this blog. Let’s chat.


* Jim Collins. Good to Great. New York: Harper Business, 2001. Collins talks about a leadership hierarchy of five levels: (1) highly capable individual, (2) contributing team member, (3) competent manager, (4) effective leader, and (5) level 5 executive.

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