7 leadership lessons from professional sports

There are valuable leadership lessons that can be learned from sporting teams

Leaders can benefit from a number of insights from the world of high performing sporting teams, writes Roger Collins

The corporate landscape is littered with the detritus of failed attempts to develop leaders in general and leadership teams in particular. At the risk of being contentious, we may have over-relied on injecting famous and accomplished sporting heroes into corporate environments on the premise that their experience and insights are directly transferable.

However, one aspect of sporting team member experience that can add real value is how a team learns and how it develops its performance. Former netball champion captain Liz Ellis, John Eales of rugby fame and the ace basketballer Michael Jordan have track records and valid insights to offer if you are seeking ideas about how to develop collective leadership – the topic of my last column.

Let’s consider some of these insights.

First, recognise that, as Jordan reminds us, “talent wins games, teamwork wins championships”. If, as I have argued, we are relying increasingly on collective leadership in many of our organisations for both alignment and agility, then we need to better understand how we can develop teams of leaders who have shared aspirations and who transmit consistent signals to their people.

“In our efforts to develop collective leadership among an executive team, across or down through silos, the insights from high-performing sporting teams can add real value”

Second, initially you need to work with the hand you’ve been dealt. Team captains and CEOs are not always in the position to reconstitute the membership of their teams. And maybe this is a bonus, given our natural tendency to select people who are like us! Remember: diversity assists with understanding complexity and coping with ambiguity.

Great sporting captains emphasise the shared objective of winning and the benefits of each team member holding themselves and each other to account for collaboration and outcomes. When the captain or CEO has to hit on collaboration, trust or accountability, it really is the last resort.

Sporting and leadership teams can always benefit from an independent observer who provides feedback, encouragement and guidance. It seems paradoxical that coaching of individual leaders in organisations has gained so much traction over the past decade, yet few leadership teams acknowledge or draw on the benefits of this potentially valuable role.

Reflexivity is the process of reviewing our behaviour and outcomes and learning from past experience. Successful sporting teams not only devote considerable time to practise their collective and individual behaviour, but also set aside time to revisit matches to identify effective and ineffective moves. Yet the reality of many leadership teams is that they confuse busyness with achievement and progress. Reflexivity is time well spent and needs to become a disciplined habit if we are serious about our development.

We have all witnessed the team huddles that sportspeople engage in prior to a match and the back slapping, hugging and jubilation that can take place after scoring a goal or victory. Despite the reservations that some might have about this physical behaviour, much of it serves to build the efficacy of the team.

“Both Liz and John emphasise that teamwork and collective leadership are about ‘we’, not ‘me'”


In turn, strong team efficacy serves to strengthen the team’s collective confidence and reinforces collaboration and shared accountability for the team’s success. Whatever you think about on-field huddling or cuddling – and remember this lot are into physical stuff – it is for them a way of reinforcing and developing team efficacy. Whilst not advocating leadership team huddling in a physical sense, a team of leaders can build solidarity by assigning time to reinforcing their aspirations, collaboration and mutual support.

Two elements of team efficacy are critical. First, team task efficacy: the belief that together they have the ability to achieve their objectives. And second, team process efficacy: the belief that they can work together effectively to deliver success. It is in developing both these dimensions that a team coach can play a crucial role. Again, the discipline of setting aside time for reflexivity is a prerequisite in enhancing team efficacy. But be assured – the juice is worth the squeeze.

Finally, high achievers in sporting and corporate life often have high ego and recognition needs. Winning for some is foremost about feeding the ego. Both Liz and John emphasise that teamwork and collective leadership are about “we”, not “me”. This is an important lesson, for the leader of the leaders not infrequently has sought out the role for personal rather than team or organisational achievement and recognition. An effective team’s norms allow each member to call ego interference.

We need to remind ourselves of the importance of our context: leadership insights and many management practices are not always transferable. But in our efforts to develop collective leadership among an executive team, across or down through silos, the insights from high-performing sporting teams can add real value, given the long history of the importance of effective teamwork for success.

7 leadership lessons from professional sports

  1. Talent wins games; teamwork wins championships.
  2. Collective leadership benefits from diversity of outlook and alignment of purpose.
  3. Effective collective leadership requires acceptance of each leader’s accountability for team outcomes.
  4. Don’t ever overlook the potential contribution of a team coach; it has a long history of adding value.
  5. The discipline of reflexivity pays huge dividends.
  6. Team efficacy is two dimensional: confidence in the ability to work together and then to achieve.
  7. Collective leadership is about “we”, not “me”.