There are so many things that make the current pandemic situation challenging — fear of getting sick; the devastating numbers of people suddenly unemployed; high school seniors who are missing their graduations and proms; and senior citizens who are isolated from their families and friends. Yet one of the things that hurts the most is something that seems, on the surface, quite trivial: We miss sports.
There is a surprising link between sports and the C-suite. In fact, a high percentage of CEOs are former athletes, and when you look specifically at women who are in executive roles, that number is an astounding 96%. It makes more sense when you consider that many of the same attributes that define a successful athlete also apply to a strong executive: the drive for greatness, resilience, determination, love of competition, and appreciation for leading and being a part of a team. Those are just some of the commonalities among high performers, whether the field of play is the ball field, the basketball court, or the boardroom. These are just a few of the many reasons leaders are feeling bereft by the abrupt end of athletics:
- Seeing authentic leaders in action. Sports give us visibility into something that’s almost impossible to see in the workplace: the ability to observe a great leader in action. While most executives do their best work behind closed doors, coaches and athletes do it in plain sight. From stoics like Bill Belichick to baseball manager Bobby Cox, who has been ejected from more MLB games than any other manager, big games give us an up-close look at a variety of leadership styles in high definition.
- The fan experience. There was some discussion about whether leagues like the NHL and NBA would finish out their seasons in empty arenas, but that idea was quickly squashed. Whether you are on the court or in the stands, the energy that flows from the fans to the players is fundamental to the experience. That level of investment and passion is exactly what brands aspire to create for their customers. The fan experience is the ultimate customer experience.
- Love for the underdog. Last week, Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins was asked by The Boston Globe how he would feel if the NHL just awarded them the Stanley Cup given their status as league leaders. He thought it was a terrible idea (not that he would refuse the Cup if offered), and most fans would agree. While awarding the championship is important, it’s the journey that drives us. Playoff sports allow anyone to witness a unique and elusive moment when maximum talent meets maximum resistance — the power of competition. We all love it when the underdog pulls off the impossible. And we shake our heads when the most talented athlete in the game just can’t get the job done.
So what is it that makes an elite team? What does great teamwork look like? How do athletes overcome a slump? What coaching strategies support long-term success? When is it time to make the tough call? There is plenty to learn from observing players and coaches under pressure when stakes are high. Those things on the field can be applied to work:
- Gear up. Athletes use rituals to get themselves into the right frame of mind. For some, it’s just a pregame warmup. But then there are athletes like Wade Boggs, who ate chicken before every game, and Michael Jordan, who wore his old UNC basketball shorts under his Bulls shorts. Each athlete has a process for putting on their game face. In the working world, those routines might include putting on your power outfit, rocking out to a great playlist during the commute, or sipping a kale smoothie to fuel up for a meeting. Now that so many people are working from home, those habits have gone up in smoke, and it’s hard to shift gears. We still need routines, but they need to adapt to the current reality. Employee experience is more important now than it was when we all came together in an office every day.
- Practice. Just days after winning the Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes was back in the gym getting ready for next season. When you can’t be in the game, work on your fundamentals. If your business is slower than usual right now, run some drills. Role-play. Downtime is THE time to hone your skills so that you’re at your peak when it’s time to perform.
- Adapt. Mike Krzyzewski, better known as Coach K, says the best basketball players are able to shift gears almost instantly, something he calls next-play speed. “Next play is the absence of fear of failure. You have moved on.” This is something every great athlete knows — a short memory is a key to seeing your next great play. Today’s leaders can’t focus on what your business was like before the pandemic. You must adapt to overcome the challenges ahead to grow again.
- Believe. We see great leaders when things aren’t going their way. Despite a devastating amount of key injuries in the 2018 season, the Philadelphia Eagles entered the postseason with backup quarterback Nick Foles and second-year head coach Doug Pederson at the helm. Underdogs throughout the playoffs and through setback after setback, they just kept winning, including the unlikely victory in Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots, who had the greatest quarterback and greatest coach of all time. When things look bleak, employees look to believe in their leaders to see beyond what could be seen as insurmountable and chart a path to a better future.
At this moment, we truly feel the loss of the experience of sports. While every year brings its own share of highs and lows, this strange spring has left us in limbo; there are no winners or losers, not even a place to sit on a sideline. But hope remains that this season of emptiness will pass. And when the best of the best return to the field, you can be sure they will have used this time to get better, because that’s what competitors do.