The idea that lessons from sport apply to management is intuitively compelling. It is expressed in the colloquialisms of management, which borrow heavily from sports metaphors – think team player, goal, taking one for the team, down for the count, and absorbing blows. Management and sports share some fundamental similarities. Both involving groups of individuals working towards a primary goal, which subsumes several secondary goals, with leaders and mentors for guidance. In both spheres, there can be tension between team members and between the occasionally competing objectives of team performance and individual glory. It seems reasonable, then, to look for principles that operate equally in the office cubicle and on the cricket pitch, and in the board room and the tennis court.
One of the most obvious lessons from sport that also applies to management is that the best at a certain competency do not necessarily make the best leaders. This is a common phenomenon in sport, with Sachin Tendulkar the most famous home-grown example. The converse of this lesson is perhaps even more important – less-than-stellar individuals can combine to form great teams. Turning once again to cricket, the overachievement of the Zimbabwean cricket time in the 90s and early 2000s was often cited as an instance of ‘punching above one’s weight’. Here was a team greater than the sum of its parts. It had virtually no superstars but its crew nevertheless alchemized excellent performances from modest raw material.
The ability to improvise is a recurrent time in inspiration sporting stories, such as the career of pitcher Jim Abbott, who had a successful baseball career despite being born without a right hand. Managers should see in Abbott’s story the potential for achievement that can be unlocked only with ingenuity and a willingness to get the most out of the resources one is given.
Individual sports like tennis contain management lessons, too. Rafael Nadal’s career was threatened by a foot deformity when he was just nineteen, but he decided to wear shoes with special orthotics and play on, at the cost of additional strain on his knees. This case teaches us the importance of compromise. Managers must realize that sometimes you have to make a trade-off or fall to the ground when you have barely started.
- Parth Govil