How Sports Leadership Translates to The Business World

May 20, 2021

Great leaders in sports and business have much in common. Here are the parallels and commonalities among the greats on the field and in the workplace.

Photo of hockey skates standing on ice.

Sports and Business Leadership Parallels

Sports and business have a lot in common.  It doesn’t matter what sport you play, the objective is to win.  Similarly, it doesn’t matter what kind of business you operate, you want to win, so to speak.  Winning in sports could mean ending with the most points or arriving at a destination faster than the rest.  In the business world, winning might be outselling a competitor or having world-class customer service. 

Parallels also exist at the leadership level in sports and business.  A great coach is often synonymous with a great sports team.   Comparably, outstanding businesses are commonly led by exceptional leaders.  Let’s see what it takes to make a great leader, whether on the field or in your field.

The Greats

Image of a coach standing at the edge of a playing field giving his team member some advice.

Phil Jackson.  Pat Summit.  Vince Lombardi.  Even if you are someone who can’t connect the team to the coach, you probably know those are coachesThey are not just coaches, however.  They are among the greats.

Elon Musk.  Mary Barra.  Jeff Weiner.  Again, these are names that even if we don’t know the company they operate, we know they run successful businesses. 

What Great Leaders Do Differently

Although some leaders make success appear effortless, businesses don’t just become successful by happenstance.  It’s the leader’s vision that not only puts the game in play, but keeps the momentum going.  Here are some actions great leaders take that are pivotal to the success of the team, and therefore the company.


Photo of ice hockey players circling up.

For starters, great leaders know how to scout talent.  Sure, they may delegate the talent search to a member of their team, but they do so with a strong list of criteria they are looking for in each candidate.  Leaders are looking to fill roles, but not just any old Joe will do.  On the contrary, great leaders want more than just a warm body to occupy space—they want the one.  Great leaders will search near and far for the right player.

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Many great business leaders implement robust AI technology to help them pinpoint the most qualified candidates for any given role.  After making it through that rigorous set of hoops, recruits must face leadership and demonstrate why they deserve a spot on the team. They strongly believe that a certain type of person would be the most effective for that job in particular.  Furthermore, they recognize that no role is insignificant, and they take their time recruiting for all positions. They don’t settle.

Even after hiring the right person to fill a role, great leaders aim to fully develop those team members.  They aren’t satisfied with status quo team members; they know the success of the team as a whole is contingent upon the successful development of individuals.


Photo of Scrabble letters with the words SHIFT HAPPENS, with a feather and tool next to the blocks.

Still, filling roles is only part of the equation.  After finding the right people, great leaders make sure to position their team members in a way that results in most optimum outcomes.  However, it’s not always guaranteed that the first time is the charm.  In other words, it might take a few tweaks to get players precisely positioned in order for the team to be successful.


Now, we know that roles and positioning are fluid aspects of a successful business.  Like a coach watching devising a tactical play, great leaders are always observing the flow of business, and keeping an eye out for opportunities for improvement or growth.  They recognize areas of strength within operations, and areas in need of improvement.  They are continuously analyzing whether the best strategy is a complete overhaul of a team, or to simply swap out one aspect of the process. 


It’s one thing for a leader to be able to communicate with team members.  It’s something else entirely to teach team members how to effectively communicate with each other.  Clear communication is absolutely imperative in sports and business.  However, communication doesn’t always come naturally.  Therefore, great leaders will set expectations for communication by modeling good communication on their end.  Great leaders know no one gets anywhere by expecting people to read minds.

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Image of words painted in black letters on cans painted white, yellow, and teal, saying I FEEL LIKE MAKIN' DREAMS COME TRUE.

Finally, the motivation factor is a biggie.  You’d be hard-pressed to hear a coach telling a team “This game is no big deal,” or a business leader saying, “This client doesn’t really matter.” Coaches and business leaders won’t disregard any role as unimportant or irrelevant–they will tell each player the expectation for performance.  Each game, client, and role is important, and great leaders are visibly charged with an energy stemmed in that belief.

Motivation doesn’t always need to be a loud, inspirational pep talk, however. Many great leaders quietly motivate their team.  Team members of great leaders know the walk is always more important than the talk. 

Becoming A Great Leader

You don’t need to be the coach of a championship sports team to be an outstanding leader—you can be a great leader in business, too.  In fact, all you really need is to keep your focus on the fact that great leaders are always surrounded by great teams who look to them, trust them, and feel trust is a two-way road.  Great leaders scout talent to fill roles, position and reposition, observe and analyze, communicate, and motivate.  Think like a great leader, act like a great leader, and eventually, your team will likely see you as a great leader.

Photo of a business leader speaking to his team of workers in an open workplace.

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