Given that the SEA Games are here, and the nation is gearing up for the festivities, now is a good time to start thinking about what sports can teach us about leadership.
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In particular, let’s focus on team sports, as there are some key takeaways that will give us insights into teams at work. Here are my top five lessons to be learnt from team sports:
Lesson #1: Pass the ball
This seems like an obvious one, so let me expand further. The thing to remember is that it’s a team sport. There is no way one person playing football or one person playing hockey can win the game.
Even in basketball with Michael Jordan – the greatest to ever play the game – there was no way for him to win a championship without the team that he had.
Without Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr, the Bulls would not have won with just Jordan. In fact, when Jordan went to the Wizards later in his career, the greatest of all time couldn’t pull off a winning season.
In an organisational context, it also means that we must learn to delegate and empower.
The skill of the leader then becomes knowing when to delegate, when to empower and when to do things for yourself.
In sports, the context may be easier, because it is usually a little more obvious when the ball needs to be passed. In the office, it is often far more difficult, which is why so many organisations have all sorts of frameworks in place.
There’s situational leadership, which talks about when you need to be directive and when you need to be supportive of your team, rules for prioritising your work and rules on what can be delegated and what can’t. We need to use all these frameworks to then decide when you should “pass the ball”.
Don’t forget, the more often you pass the ball, the faster your teammates will develop, enabling your whole work process to become more hassle-free. That’s an important part of effective delegation.
It is not just about helping you get more done, it’s also a tool to develop those around you and elevate the team as a whole.
In essence, don’t try to be a hero. You can’t succeed alone.
Lesson #2: Appreciate diversity
This follows naturally from the lesson of passing the ball, as you need a group of diverse talents to pass the ball to. Look at football for example, in which everybody has a position that best compliments their skillset.
In basketball, there are the players who make a living just by being a specialist three-point shooter or a specialist rebounder. There are, of course, those who are good at everything, like Lebron James, but they are a very rare breed indeed.
At work, we should not employ only those who think just like us, but in fact do the opposite – get people with different strengths on board. Strengths that round out the team.
Strong team composition is about more than just differing strengths though; it’s also personality types, backgrounds, age groups, gender, ethnicity etc.
For example, if you have two “Dominant” types (referencing DISC profiling) in your team, you may need to set clear responsibilities for each. It is important to look at the composition of a team and make sure that you have diversity based on what you need.
We all know that piling together the best players possible in sports doesn’t work, right? There are many examples in basketball where teams try to stockpile All-Stars only to fail miserably because of the lack of diversity and, therefore, synergy.
Maximising the strengths in your team is important as well. Let me use the example of James Harden and the Houston Rockets. During the 2015/16 season, they were at a 50% winning percentage with Harden the undisputed focal point of the team.
Following that season, new coach Mike D’Antoni saw something in Harden that no coach of his previously had. D’Antoni moved him to the position of point guard and brought in some specialist three-point shooters.
That year, they won 67% of their games, finished third in their conference and Harden was named runner up for Most Valuable Player. What a difference putting the right people in the right job can make.
It’s something that happens very often in badminton as well. As brilliant as former national shuttlers Razif and Jalani Sidek (or countless other pairs) were as badminton players in their own right, they would have had considerably less success playing with anyone other than their regular partner.
It’s the chemistry – it’s the understanding of each other’s roles that makes the pairing – or team – great. When a team becomes greater than the sum of its parts, that’s when they see the biggest returns.
Lesson #3: Build a bench
So, building a good bench refers to having enough talent available for you to call upon when the time comes.
A lot of times, we focus too much on our star players and don’t give the rest of the people enough attention. But the truth is that your star players will need a break.
What if you have two major projects happening at the same time; or what if your star players get sick or even leave the company? You don’t want to be caught without a bench.
We are in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world and we need to be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Changes will be happening. Sports teams know that, and always focus on having a good bench.
That’s why great Premier League teams have academies dedicated to developing the young talents so that they have a continuous funnel of top potentials feeding into their teams. This is a good way to develop bench strength, and also to find the next star.
We do this in organisations, too, and we call it succession planning.
However, it’s not enough to identify high-potential talents and groom them alone. It’s important to train up the rest of the people in your team as well. You need that bench strength to succeed.
Sometimes you may find that your bench isn’t deep enough, so it’s not even about training them – it’s about filling up the bench. That’s where football academies also do a good job by having that pool that you can work with when needed.
Sponsoring university students for internships is one way of doing this at organisational level. I think we often underestimate how important this bench is for the long-term sustainable success of the business. That’s why the HR lifecycle starts at recruitment.
Lesson #4: Pass the baton
We started with pass the ball, but now it’s about passing the baton. Of course, this refers to a relay race where one runner passes the baton to another. The baton, to me, is a symbol for information.
The passing of the baton signifies communication where one member passes information to another to continue the work that was started. If you watch, it seems like the simplest thing to do. But believe it or not, that’s the part that worries these relay teams the most.
They practice it repeatedly. I remember in 2008, both the men’s and women’s teams for the United States didn’t make the finals of the 4×100 relay because of dropped batons. During both, they were among the favourites to earn a place on the podium.
For a successful baton pass, you need to have complete trust. The person receiving takes off with a hand behind trusting that the baton will be placed there.
The person giving must release as soon as it touches and trust that the receiver isn’t going to drop it. Races are won or lost on this transition. Communication works the same way.
Ever been in an argument over whether what the person said was incorrect or if the other person simply heard it wrongly? Well, there’s no such thing. Both were wrong for not clarifying what was said and heard.
As teams work together more, understand each other, and build trust and chemistry, they will continue to improve the efficiency and smoothness of their communication.
Like married couples who can understand each other’s body language and know how to react immediately, these things take time.
So, communication is like passing a baton – it takes both parties, and it takes trust. It’s also one of the most important aspects of teamwork.
If your team is not communicating perfectly, you are setting yourself up for failure. But how do teams get the act of passing the baton down to such an exact science? With lots of practice, of course.
Lesson #5: Get coached
This seems obvious, but I think a lot of people and teams feel that they can figure things out on their own. In a sports team, the role of the player is to play and the role of the coach is to coach. It’s very clear.
As talented or as self-aware as a player may be, they still need someone to guide them. To point out things that are in their blind spot. It is the same in corporate life.
You need to continuously be able to have somebody that you can go to for guidance – someone who can observe your behaviour or talk to you about your outcomes, to discuss what works and what doesn’t.
Does that coach need to be an expert? Of course not. In fact, lots of coaches aren’t even good players. Look at Jose Mourinho or Arsène Wenger, both of whom were nothing special as players but are now both ranked among the Premier League’s most successful coaches of all time.
Similarly, good players don’t necessarily make good coaches (sorry, Paul Ince). I think that’s something that’s often overlooked in the working world.
I’ve been in many situations where team members expect their manager to be better than them at what they do. Often, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
You see, the manager is there to lead the team to greater performance, by coaching, by setting up procedures and steering the ship; not to be the best “doer”.
Many organisations promote their “best player” to become a manager or leader.
How many times have we seen this fail miserably?
Being the best player doesn’t automatically guarantee that they have the requisite leadership skills to be a great manager or coach.
I find it sad when a great coach doesn’t get enough credit for what they do. We tend to focus on singling out players for praise, but a great coach unleashes not only the potential of the player, but of the entire team.
So those are my top 5 lessons to be learnt from sports teams: Pass the ball, team diversity, build a bench, pass the baton, and coaching is key.
If Malaysia can observe these traits during the upcoming SEA Games, and if you can introduce some of them into your organisation, the sky’s the limit!