Sports Offer a Lesson in Leadership

I’m sometimes criticized for talking so much about sports.

The truth is I’m not that interested in sports. But I am extremely interested in leadership. And it just so happens that sports is one of the best ways to learn about good (and bad) leadership techniques.

You see, the same leadership principles that work in sports also apply to other aspects of your life, including politics and business.

As you may know, one of my all-time favorite experts on leadership is leadership guru and author John Maxwell. As I read today’s Washington Post, it occurred to me that a lot of Maxwell’s leadership lessons could be taught simply by reading today’s sports page. In fact, here are a few examples:

Attitude and Teamwork: John Maxwell has devoted an entire book to each of these subjects. Sadly, the Philadelphia Eagles’ leadership must not have read either book.

After losing last year’s Super Bowl to the New England Patriot’s, observers assumed the Eagles would be back this year. In fact, Eagles’ middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter recently told the Washington Post, "I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me before the season this is what our record would be." (Of course, if you follow sports, you are aware the Eagles are already out of playoff contention.)

Sadly, Terrell Owens’ selfishness and negative attitude destroyed the chances of the once-powerful Philadelphia Eagles. "The sports-viewing nation watched their team unity dissolve, chronicled in blaring headlines and breathless television updates, as wide receiver Terrell Owens’s contract dispute with the club led him to turn on the organization and quarterback Donovan McNabb," writes the Post.

Lesson learned: When making your hiring decisions, don’t overlook attitude. No matter how talented a potential employee is, if his attitude is lacking, don’t hire him. One bad attitude can ruin the team.

The Law of Momentum: In his classic book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell teaches "The Law of the Big Mo." Whether it’s life, sports, or politics, the best leaders understand the power of momentum.

George Herbert Walker Bush understood this concept when he coined the term, "The Big Mo," during the 1980 Primaries.

In sports, momentum is so important that a wise football coach, sensing that the tide has turned toward the opposing team, will often call a time-out in order to change the momentum.

There are two stories in today’s sports page that make me think of the importance of momentum.

The first is simply the Washington Redskins recent victories over the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants. A couple of months ago, the Redskins were on a downward spiral. Coach Joe Gibbs deserves a lot of credit for instilling discipline and a positive attitude into the Redskins. Today, they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.

But what changed in the last month and a half? Do the Redskins have a different roster? No, they’ve got the same players. The difference is their winning attitude — and their momentum.

The Indianapolis Colts seem to be heading the opposite direction. They went undefeated for the first 13 games of the season, but have lost their last two games. It is ironic that going undefeated for most of the year, and clinching a playoff berth early, may have actually hurt the Colts by forcing them to play a series of meaningless football games.

The Colts have now lost two straight games, and with the recent unfortunate loss of Coach Tony Dungy’s son, their momentum is heading in the wrong direction.

Sadly, they are at their lowest point at the precise time when they should be peaking. Ultimately, the Colts season will rest on their ability to regain momentum. If they can shift their momentum, they may be unstoppable. As columnist Michael Wilbon puts it, "… if the Colts are able to have their hearts and minds in the game the next time they play for real, they’re still the best team …"

The Law of Sacrifice: The third leadership principle I noticed in today’s sports section involves Washington Redskins’ defensive coach Greg Williams.

The article points out that Williams will be tempted by several teams to leave the nascent Redskins, in order to become a head coach for another team.

In fairness, Williams may see this once in a lifetime opportunity. Head coaching jobs are few and far between, and sometimes you’ve got to grab the brass ring while you can.

But, on the other hand, Williams has a chance to stay with Coach Joe Gibbs and turn this Redskins team into one of the great teams. It would appear to be a sacrifice, but, as a Redskins fan; I hope it’s one he is willing to make.

In any event, in contemplating this decision, Williams gives us some good advice on what to consider when making a career decision. He says he will ask these three questions:

"Where am I going, what am I doing and who is it with?’

Williams wisely understands that affiliating himself with the right people will determine his success. I think this is good advice for anyone, whether you’re looking to work on a political campaign or just looking for a job.

As John Maxwell says, in order to go up, sometimes a leader has to give up. Whether or not Williams will be willing to "give up" this opportunity for the good of the Redskins remains to be seen.

… Thank you for indulging me on yet another sports-related blog. I guess if you’re into leadership, you can find good and bad examples just about anywhere you look. These examples all come from today’s (December 26, 2005) Washington Post. Even if you’re not a big sports fan, I hope you never look at sports the same way again!


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