5 Leadership Lessons You Learned Playing Sports

Good leadership is one of those things that’s hard to describe, but we know it when we see it. We all aspire to lead well – whether it’s at our company, non-profit or community – but it’s hard to know what that looks like day-to-day. The good news is that leadership is not an innate talent – it’s something we can work on to improve.

For those of you who have played sports, you are already ahead of the game. Here are five leadership principles you learned on the field, the court, the green, the pitch…you get the point.

1. Leadership means playing by the rules, even when no one is looking.

Another day, another scandal. In the business world, we’ve become desensitized to unethical behavior. That’s why a leader with a strong moral code matters – it (unfortunately) can’t be taken for granted! And employees take notice. A recent study asked nearly 200 global leaders to rate 74 qualities that made a great leader, and the top answer (67%) was “has high ethical and moral standards.”

If you’ve ever played a sport, you’ve seen this in your team leader. The first relay runner doesn’t throw a foot out in front of a competitor. The captain accepts the ref’s fair call, even if it benefits the other team. These leaders want to win, but they don’t compromise their integrity to get there.

2. Leadership means knowing how to serve and follow well. 

According to Forbes, the thing that great leaders have that good leaders don’t, is being able to serve from the bottom and follow others, in addition to being able to lead. This concept is at the heart of Agile, an alternative Project Management methodology which prizes “servant leadership” aimed at removing obstacles for the team, rather than dictating orders.

On the field, these kinds of leaders were the ones who weren’t too good to carry the water. They were the point guards who let another junior player call the play and bring the ball down. They were also the kind of people you wanted to be around, because they were more concerned with the team as a whole than their own moment of stardom, and you felt that.

3. Leadership means communicating clearly and often. 

According to the study we mentioned earlier, setting clear expectations is a valued leadership quality. Neuroscience shows that this clarity creates psychological safety, and leads to higher productivity in the workplace. When we’re clear about what we need to do – and then given the freedom to do it – we’re empowered and energized!

Nothing is worse than a leader on the court or the field who doesn’t communicate well to her team, and then lashes out at her teammates for not understanding. Maybe it’s a point guard who yelled the name of the play too quickly or eye contact on the field that wasn’t understood. A strong leader takes the responsibility to communicate with her team clearly and often, so that everyone is on the same page.

4. Leadership means developing yourself and developing others, in that order. 

More and more every day we’re hearing about the importance of self-awareness and self-development in business leaders. This means understanding your thoughts and feelings, asking others how your words and actions affect them, and then regulating your behavior as a result. Not an easy thing! This is a monumental step for a leader – but certainly not the last. According to our favorite study of 200 leaders mentioned above, great leaders also pour energy into developing others in their careers and lives. We all remember that boss who took extra time to encourage, coach, or offer a suggestion that built on our natural abilities.

The same was true on the court. You won’t soon forget that team captain who came early to work on her own foul shots, and stayed late to help you with your jump shot.  You’ll never forget your coach who helped you break through to become the best defender on the team. A great leader is always growing and helping others do the same.

5. Leadership means taking teamwork seriously. 

Maybe surprising, maybe not – our study of business leaders harps on the need for leaders to win and fail together with the team. AKA teamwork. This again is a function of how our brains work. Being part of a team with belonging allows our brains to be more focused, productive, innovative and even put up with more pain. According to a study at Oxford, team players can tolerate twice as much pain as individuals. Wow.

For all of us who played team sports, this one requires no explanation. You remember the moment of bliss when the clock stopped, the whistle blew, and the cheers erupted. You also remember the sinking feeling of a loss. But regardless of a win or loss, it always ended the way it began – together. And that gave you courage for the next game.

You didn’t realize you were such a leadership guru, did you? All those practices, all those workouts, all those games, matches, tournaments….they’ve all been giving you invaluable lessons in leadership. You watched teammates lead and you rose to the challenge of leading, too. And today? Maybe you spend a little less time in your cleats or jersey, but these skills have come with you, and prepared you to lead right where you are – whether it’s in the conference room or at the event – guiding your team forward toward the common goal.

For more, sign up now for the She Plays weekly bulletin!