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Extra time! Leadership and lessons from sport

The dream may be over but England football team’s World Cup success has delighted and inspired the nation, bringing the country together in a show of overwhelming support.

Manager Gareth Southgate has been widely praised and respected for his management style – he believed in the skills of his players, giving them the time and space to develop together as a team.

Colin Hewson believes that we can learn many lessons from the world of sport, if we know where to look – starting with ‘extra time’.

Sporting metaphors can be over used. People often cite ‘marginal gains’, as proposed by Cycling’s Dave Brailsford or the importance of ‘critical non-essentials’ given to us by Rugby Union’s Clive Woodward. To be blunt, these have been done to death.

So, how did people such as Shankley, Busby, Fergusson and Wenger from the world of football; Toni Minichiello from the world of athletics and Rugby League’s Wayne Bennet become so successful?

Because these organisations spend a fortune trying to nourish and nurture their leaders.

How good is your organisation at leadership? How well looked after are your staff and what example does the management team set? Do your senior managers do more than simply talk about safety being a priority?

The Sports Factor

Most top sports coaches probably couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t want to) write an academic paper on management models and the effect of their approach to nurturing talent. That is why there is so little that we, outside of elite sports, can learn from top sports coaches and organisations.

What we can learn from sport, however, is the time given to preparation.

Professional athletes and teams spend Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and probably Saturday or Sunday getting ready, training, preparing, strategising and rehearsing for what they need to do when the time to perform arrives!
Even I, as a very average sprinter back in the day, trained twice a day Monday to Friday and once on Sunday with the aim of trying to break 11 seconds for 100m on a regular basis.

All that pain, suffering and practice for 11 seconds.

The fact is that professional athletes spend more time getting ready to do the job than doing the job itself.

Just do it…

In industry, organisations always claim to be under production or service pressure, having to hit the ground running all the time…. Just do it! But do these organisations really understand or give thought to the difficulties such pressures place on their internal and external tribes? Just do it… faster, cheaper, better; whether this relates to safety, quality or production.

Is it any surprise that work as imagined and work as done is often different – and that teams trade off quality and safety for production – and generally get away with it?

What if there is little time to train or to team build?

So, you believe you’ve created a sense of purpose, agreed the outcomes, good communication, tight time scales, an agreed plan and budget… oh, and you’ve started with whoever/whatever should be front and centre of the project and worked backwards. Surely that’s fine? You may think you have ‘covered all the bases’ but whatever this delivers it is unlikely to be a team… time is our friend and usually the last thing we get.

A key to top sports performance, either at the individual or team level, is to create the time and space for good people to do great things.

Top coaches can sometimes turn the average performer into a champion by telling them that they believe in them, showing them what good looks like and keeping it simple. One game at a time, start with success and work backwards. What do we have to do, step-by-step?

It isn’t rocket science. Simply take a step back and think carefully about what you are asking people to do.

Talk to your people regularly, find out what life is really like at the sharp end and what improvements might be possible.

Good leaders are realists, but they never stop telling their people they believe in them and show them what good looks like, creating the time and space for good people to do great things.


Adapted from a blog by Roy Lilley Commentator, writer and Former NHS Chair

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