7 Ways Leadership is Like Sports

Anyone can practice leadership or sports, but not everyone will succeed. Not everyone has the same capacity for sports or leadership. In his book, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell calls this the Law of the Lid:

“The Lid represents the limit of our leadership abilities. Hard work, efficient management, and knowledge can only bring us so far.”

Sports and Leadership Have Many SimilaritiesHere are 7 ways that leadership and sports are alike:

1. You can know what greatness looks like, without being great

Armchair quarterbacks know that Joe Namath, Warren Moon and Tom Brady are all amazing NFL quarterbacks. However, chances are the fans cannot throw a 40 yard touchdown strike. In the same manner, we can observe great leaders without being able to effect the same results.

2. It takes a ton of practice to be good, let alone great

In his book “Outliers“, Malcom Gladwell referenced studies that showed the greatest performers in a given field were not naturally gifted, but practiced endlessly. Over and over again, the studies showed a theme of at least 10,000 hours to be a remarkable success:

The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

Sports and leadership are no exception. If you want to be great at either, start logging hours of practice.

3. There are many variations, with consistent themes

From tennis to hockey, basketball to boxing there are many different types of sports. Yet all sports have share some basic principles like practice, dedication, concentration, physical ability and more. Similarly, leadership styles vary broadly from person to person. Still, great leaders all have some things in common: they serve first, they influence rather than control and they focus on the people.

4. The best performers are not in it for the money

In every sport, there are individuals who traded passion for the game in for greed. In most cases, that performer ends up fading into obscurity. Leaders run the same risk. The greatest examples are leaders who focus solely on fiscal profits rather than addressing social impacts. We don’t have to all be saints, but too often leaders miss the opportunity to serve all stakeholders by focusing solely on shareholders.

5. Selfishness can end your career

Even in individual sports, a focus on yourself at the exclusion of all others can hurt your career. Selfishness is frowned upon. This is even more critical for leaders. To be successful as a leader, you must serve first.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. – Luke 12:48

6. To achieve greatness, you must fall a few times

What sport can you practice and succeed at without falling a few times? There will be bumps and bruises. In fact, few will succeed without a couple significant injuries. For leadership, it is the same. Falling is a necessary lesson in professional development for leaders. A person who has not fallen a few times can not be a great leader.

7. It is always a team effort

No sport is completely an individual effort. There is always the coach, the family support system and the fans who enable the performer. Leadership is the same. You can not succeed as a leader without mentors, family and followers. Leadership and sports are both, always, team efforts.

Sports make great analogies in life because everyone can relate. Leadership is no exception. From extensive practice, to team effort and everything in between, leadership and sports have a lot in common. So put on your equipment, practice hard and remember, whether it is a ball or people, serve first.

Question: What other similarities do you see between sports and leadership?


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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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