10 leadership lessons from sports

top leadership lessons sports

It’s no secret that business and sports have much in common. And coaches from both worlds — whether they’re training athletes or executives — can learn a lot from each other. Read on for 10 leadership lessons from legendary sports coaches that executive mentors should take to heart.

1. Be persistent

Persistence is key to leadership — whether in the executive suite, as a Vistage Chair or on the playing field. When times are tough, people look to their leaders to give them a reason to push through.

Doug Williams, previously an NFL quarterback and former head coach of the Grambling State Tigers, once said, “Never give up, never give in, and when the upper hand is ours, may we have the ability to handle the win with the dignity that we absorbed the loss.”

As the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, he knew a thing or two about adversity — and about the rewards of seeing it through with grace and confidence.

2. Nurture relationships

Jim Calhoun, best known as the former head coach of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, led his teams to over 900 victories in his 40+ year career.

But it’s not the endless laurels that he found most important when reflecting on those years. Instead, he said, “Yes, winning and championships are memorable, but they come from the strength of the relationships.”

The same goes for executive coaching. Many Chairs consider the personal relationships they form with their members to be the heart of their mentoring work. By building trust, executive coaches can create long and fruitful partnerships.

3. Pay close attention

It can be tempting to turn a blind eye to unpleasant truths. But executive coaches should be on the lookout for what their mentees don’t say — or what they don’t even notice.

As Hall of Fame football coach John Madden said, “Coaches have to watch for what they don’t want to see and listen for what they don’t want to hear.”

The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging the problem. Chairs benefit from being one step removed from the day-to-day of their members’ difficulties.

That affords them a certain degree of clarity about ugly truths — which can make all the difference in mitigating damage and turning things around.

4. Empower others

Once former execs become executive mentors, it can require a shift in mindset — the job of a mentor is primarily to support others.

Many Chairs say that their members already know the answers to their problems, deep down. The trick is to empower them to recognize those answers and take action.

It’s a familiar struggle for coaches of all kinds. Homer Rice, former head coach of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, said, “You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both those methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation.”

5. Don’t dwell on mistakes

Mistakes are inevitable in any endeavor. “What do you do with a mistake?” asked Dean Smith, former UNC men’s college basketball coach and two-time national champion. “Recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.” Smith knew that there was a fine line between learning from a mistake and agonizing over it.

When you’re a coach of any kind, sometimes you make the wrong call. That shouldn’t stop you from tackling the next challenge and continuing to support your mentees.

6. Play the long game

In 1980, the Los Angeles Lakers took home the NBA Championship title. But just one year later, they were knocked out in the first round of playoffs.

Coach Pat Riley attributed the flameout to “the disease of more.” A taste of success had big-shot players thinking that they deserved more simply because of their past performance. Clearly, that didn’t work out.

So instead of overly aggressive ambition, Riley maintained that “excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” Good executive coaches take a similar approach: realism and patience will get the job done over time.

7. Embrace the pressure

For executives, the stakes are high, and so is the pressure. Executive mentors bear that weight too, since it’s their job to help their mentees work through the toughest parts of being a leader. Some might buckle, but the ones who love the challenge will thrive.

Tennis player and coach Billie Jean King faced enormous pressure ahead of her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, which would become known as “the Battle of the Sexes.”

Riggs claimed women athletes were inherently inferior and intended to beat King to prove it; King knew the world was watching and feared losing would set the women’s rights movement back 50 years. Despite that burden, she kept her cool and won definitively.

“Pressure is a privilege,” she said. “It only comes to those who earn it.”

8. Aim high

Paul “Bear” Bryant is considered one of the greatest football coaches of the 20th century. He coached University of Alabama football from 1958 to 1982, shaping the Crimson Tide into a force to be reckoned with.

His vision helped the team win six national championships throughout his career, and he held a then-record number of wins at the time of his retirement — one month before he died.

Bear’s advice to leaders? “Set goals — high goals for you and your organization,” he said. “When your organization has a goal to shoot for, you create teamwork: people working for a common good.”

Aspirational goals attract aspirational people. By encouraging their mentees to aim high, executive coaches set a standard that can lead to new levels of success.

9. Learn to listen

Executive mentorship involves a lot of talking — but it involves a lot of listening, too. University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit (who never had a losing season in 38 years) said, “Silence is a form of communication. Sometimes less is more.”

Active listening requires putting your thoughts on the back burner and tuning in. And as seasoned Chairs know, a well-timed silence in a conversation with a member can draw buried truths to the surface.

10. Always look forward

There is a time to mourn losses and to celebrate victories — but never forget to turn your attention (and your mentees’ attention) to what comes next. As three-time Super Bowl champion and twice-fired NFL coach Mike Ditka said, “Success isn’t permanent, and failure isn’t fatal.”

By internalizing this mindset, executive coaches can gain further appreciation for their wins and feel less defeated after their losses. Mentees also benefit from this attitude, often learning by example from their mentor or coach.

From the game to the office

All these hard-earned lessons, achieved through sweat and tears on courts and fields, translate easily to the executive suite. Why? Leadership speaks the language of mental and physical excellence, and all mentors share the ability to teach others.

It’s no coincidence that plenty of former sports coaches are among the ranks of Vistage Chairs. If you have coaching experience or understand how these lessons can guide leaders, consider sharing your wisdom as an executive coach.

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Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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