Business Schools

Athletes: Natural-Born Leaders


Quarterback Eli Manning

Photograph by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Quarterback Eli Manning

Economics tells us that supply swiftly follows demand.  If we need something, free enterprise ramps up to provide it. The operation of markets is a wonderful thing to behold. Efficient and effective, the system fills voids in a true and timely manner.

But market forces don’t apply to leadership—something we can all agree is in short supply and desperately needed. Leaders cannot be forged in the fires of industry. They cannot be conjured by the creative economy. They cannot be summoned by a moment’s need. The qualities of a leader cannot be manufactured and transacted on Wall Street. We have to find leaders in any nook and cranny of society they might dwell.

Traditionally, we’ve looked to the military and to the ranks of the “self-made”—wonderful sources to be sure. But the issue with the former is that the road from military command to civilian management is rocky. For the latter, the proverbial Horatio Algers have to find themselves before we can find them. In any event, these two sources just don’t satisfy demand.

Fortunately, there’s a third source—a veritable gold vein that’s not been mined as deeply as it should: professional athletes. Below are five reasons why they fit the bill:

■ Professional athletes are determined. True, many are endowed with physical gifts, but realizing them is hard work. Progressing in sports means negotiating an increasingly exclusive series of hurdles that can’t be cleared without discipline, focus, patience, practice, and more practice. It takes decades of sweat equity to bring whatever a leader possesses to fruition. We simply won’t follow someone who hasn’t demonstrated determination.

■ These men and women don’t just preach teamwork. They practice it. A sports team is like a jazz band; integration is necessary to gather a coherent whole, but everybody gets the chance to shine. There might be a “most valuable player,” but he or she is first among equals. Everybody—and I mean everybody—has to do the job or no one gets a ring or trophy. More than ever, modern organizations need the cross-functionality team sports can supply.

■ Professional athletes appreciate followership. “Follow the leader” is not just a playground game. It’s an experience in serving greater purpose. Athletes understand the tangible advantages of executing a plan. Their very goal achievement is contingent upon following well and truly. Leading is rooted in having learned the lessons of following.

■ They are cognitively complex. They grasp the dynamic flow of many inter-related variables, simultaneously played. As any fan will attest, the strategic machinations of a successful franchise are convoluted and complex. The plays themselves have intricacies upon intricacies. One’s wits are challenged with hundreds of unpredictable factors that require seamless adaptation and improvisation. This kind of thinking stands up to today’s fast-moving environment.

■ Professional athletes know what it’s like to work under pressure. There are enormous stakes. A lot of people are watching. The investment in time, talent, money, and reputation is ever-present. They have to check anxieties and injuries at the door to stay calm, cool, and collected. If one player loses his or her composure, the efforts of the rest are squandered. Nothing’s more valued in today’s stressful business climate than a level head.

Society extolls the virtues of team sports, earnestly believing that they develop teamwork, discipline, followership, intellect, and level-headedness. Sports surface, support, and, potentially, impart that most important of leadership qualities: character.  Professional athletes have character in abundance. I know first-hand, having taught many in executive programs, even becoming friends with a few.

The cynical line of Paul Simon’s, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” captures a leadership vacuum. But in this context, it’s not cynical at all, because the inheritors of DiMaggio’s legacy—today’s professional athletes—are well-equipped to answer the call. They are the real thing, a next generation, and it is time we turned to them to provide the leadership we yearn for and deserve.

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James Bailey is the Jonathan Hochberg Professor of Leadership Development and director of the World Executive MBA at the George Washington University School of Business.

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