What can business leaders learn from sports leadership?

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 25 November 2013


Guenzi, D.R.a.P. (2013), "What can business leaders learn from sports leadership?", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 13 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/SHR-07-2013-0072



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

What can business leaders learn from sports leadership?

Article Type: Q&A From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 13, Issue 1

Leading industry experts answer your strategic questions

Sports leadership is often used as a powerful analogy for analyzing and interpreting business leaders’ behaviors, such as team work, motivation and people management, with professional sports coaches held up as role models for managers. Coaches and managers have important things in common. Both roles have a more pressing need for sharing of leadership issues than ever before, in light of the strategic and organizational complexity with which sports organizations and firms find themselves contending.

Motivation beyond finances

Sports have a major social and economic impact and, as a result, a series of elements are needed that are not only related to technical and sports specifications, but are mainly based on people. For many managers, the biggest challenge is to incentivize their collaborators in ways that do not involve money, focusing on other motivational levers instead.

In the sports world, coaches do not always decide how much to pay athletes, and in elite sports money often is not a problem for athletes. So coaches make an interesting case study for exploring how to motivate players without using monetary compensation. In this perspective the lessons learned from sports can be invaluable to business managers.

Finding the parallels

Furthermore, successful leadership models in sports can be used in business contexts, keeping in mind that the greater the similarity between the specific sports and business teams the more expedient this transposition will be. We can draw parallels between the roles of coach and manager/business leader, but only when there are similarities among the main variables considered in a certain business context and in a certain sport, such as team objectives, tasks of team members, team structure, team functioning and rules of play/work.

For example, soccer is very similar to small and medium-sized enterprises or cultural organizations. Soccer is characterized by specialized positions, where players also have to be flexible and know how to keep the right distances among them during the various phases of the game. Small and medium-sized enterprises, characterized by limited number of products or services, count on their employees to have specific, advanced competencies, along with the capacity to cover a number of roles, given the company’s size and its highly interdependent activities. Similar models can be observed in cultural projects (festivals, exhibits, etc.). Here too employees follow planned processes in their work, but at the same time they have to work in response to the needs of the project at hand.

The more similar these variables are, the more it makes sense to draw parallels between the two worlds. A tennis coach faces different challenges compared to a basketball one, in the same way that a research center manager has different challenges compared to a pharmaceutical sales supervisor.

Creating credibility

A coach’s ability to influence team members largely depends on certain personal characteristics and actions, which ultimately drive personal credibility. In our research, coaches almost always cite their personal credibility as the key to their success in leading teams and winning team trust. Credibility is how leaders win the confidence of their constituents. It is about what people demand of their leaders, before they are willing to dedicate their hearts and minds to a common cause. And it is about the actions leaders must take in order to intensify their constituents’ commitment.

We find that this credibility derives from several attributes. Every coach has a personal notion of what it means to be credible. Coaches build credibility with multiple stakeholders at different levels, from micro (typically the players on the team and the technical staff) to macro (other members of the organization and external actors). This refers specifically to:

1. Individual team members (athletes).

2. The team as a whole (including technical staff).

3. The organization as a whole (including non-athletes who work for the sports club).

4. All relevant actors outside the club (media, fans, referees, agents, etc.).

These four levels of action are interdependent. For example, a coach who is a successful team leader on an individual and group level is usually also credible in the eyes of the club’s other stakeholders. By the same token, the legitimacy derived from these stakeholders typically gives the coach more credibility with the team as a whole and with individual team members.

A relational view of leadership

The model is based on a relational view of leadership where it is seen as a two-way influence relationship between a leader and a follower oriented to reaching common goals. Individuals in different levels align with one another to accomplish mutual and organizational goals. In this context leadership is a multi-faced construct involving the leader, the follower and the dyadic relationship between the two.

The relational approach also emphasizes the ability to interpret situations at different levels and to make choices that are most consistent with the context in question. The best team leaders are highly skilled in self-analysis, emotional control, and maintaining mental clarity: all this increases their ability to evaluate, comprehend and deal with specific situations, adopting managerial or coaching behaviors accordingly.

In conclusion, business leaders can learn different insightful tips and leadership mechanisms from sport. We encourage them to follow their chosen method or model and to practice every day like a real athlete.

Dino Ruta and Paolo Guenzi

About the authors

Dino Ruta is Professor in the Department of Organization and Human Resource Management at SDA Bocconi School of Management. He is scientific director of the FIFA International Master in Humanities, Management and Law of Sports. He leads the Sport Business Academy and the Sports Innovation Laboratory at SDA Bocconi School of Management. His research activities are focused on leadership, human resources and sports management, integrating cultural and business results. He has published in leading academic journals as well as publishing books for several international publishers. He is a co-author of Leading Teams: Tools and Techniques for Successful Team Leadership from the Sports World (Jossey-Bass, London, 2013). Dino Ruta is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: mailto:dino.ruta@unibocconi.it

Paolo Guenzi is Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing at Bocconi University, and professor in the Department of Marketing at SDA Bocconi School of Management, where he is the director of the courses on sales management. He has published several books and more than 30 articles in leading academic journals. He is a co-author of Leading Teams: Tools and Techniques for Successful Team Leadership from the Sports World (Jossey-Bass, London, 2013). He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management and the International Journal of Sport Marketing & Sponsorship. He is the track chair of the Sales Management and Personal Selling Track of the European Marketing Academy.