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What can be learned from leadership in team sports?

Ryne A. Sherman - Hogan Assessments

There are two basic forms of competition in life: competition within the group and competition between groups. While a great deal of attention is paid to the competition within-groups – who is up, who is down; who is in, who is out – the competition between groups is far more consequential. In fact, for our ancient ancestors, failure to win the between group competition meant almost certain death, and removal from the gene pool. In group competition, the primary success factor success is coordination of individual efforts. Virtually every significant human accomplishment has been achieved by a coordinated group effort. The person(s) primarily responsible for coordination of group efforts is its leader(s). Therefore, leadership is of critical importance for organizational effectiveness: whether a group succeeds or fails. This is as true for nations as it is for businesses, and yes even for team sports.

Team sports, such as European Football, American Football, Basketball, Volleyball, and Rugby Union, are a superb testing ground for leadership and organizational effectiveness. Success in these competitions requires tremendous group coordination. The failure of a single individual to fulfill his or her role often results in a loss of possession, points, or even an entire match. As sports prove time and time again, sheer talent alone is not enough to overcome a highly coordinated group effort. Sports also make an excellent testing ground for leadership and organizational effectiveness because the results are objective: a team either wins or loses. It is often difficult to tell (until it is extremely obvious) whether a business or a government is succeeding or failing. But in sports, every game has an objective outcome. Finally, the third factor that makes sports an excellent testing ground for leadership and organizational effectiveness is the fact that players, managers, and coaches shift teams frequently. This means that team dynamics shift frequently and leadership plays a critical role in attracting and developing the right talent, persuading individuals to sacrifice their own individual glory for the sake of the group, setting the strategy (or gameplan) for success, and ensuring coordination remains at a high-level over long periods of time.

How a person leads in sports, just as in business or in government, is largely a function of that person’s personality. We all differ from each other in how we typically think, act, and feel and those individual differences have consequences for how players and assistant coaches respond. Some years ago we were contracted to help a major sports franchise select a new head coach. We used a series of scientifically validated personality assessments to understand how each potential coach would fit in with the team. We evaluated their ability to handle pressure, to deal with the media, to motivate their team, to bounce back from losses, to treat players with respect, to form positive relations with key personnel. All of these factors are critical to success as a head coach. Based on our assessments, one coach clearly stood above the rest as being well-prepared to handle the responsibilities of leading the team. Unfortunately, the ownership group of that team chose a different candidate. According to our assessments, the coach they selected seemed to thrive on emotion and appeared to have difficulty handling criticism. At game time, the team showed a lack of discipline racking up many penalties. The head coach had several clashes with the media and by the midway point of the season, many suspected he had lost control of the team. At the end of season that saw more losses than wins, the coach was fired. The next season, the team hired the coach we originally recommended. The team went on to compete for a league title for the first time in more than a decade and the head coach was named coach of the year by the league.

Sports is a microcosm for studying personality, leadership, and organizational effectiveness. The objectives are clear, and the outcomes are unaffected by politics or bias. Teams and their managers change frequently, making it an excellent place to observe the impact of leadership and team coordination on results. While running a sports team is not quite the same as running a business, many of core principles of leadership are the same: the most effective leaders are able to build and maintain high-performing, and highly coordinated, teams.

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