Can We Really Learn Leadership From Sports?

by John Baldoni

“Okay, team, we’ve got ourselves pinned on our own 1 yard line… As your quarterback, it’s my job to get us into our own end zone. To do that is going to take a lot of blocking and tackling to move the ball where we want to go… We’ve got to really suck it up and go out there and hit, hit, hit, and hit some more…”

If you haven’t lost your cookies, or flipped to another page, you’ll allow me to make the point that when most managers hear the term “sports” in relation to business, football is the dominant imagery. Why? Because it’s a cliché that has been used ad nauseum to the point that it’s meaningless. Worse, football imagery relates more to “command and control” systems than today’s business world of autonomous business units and self-managed teams.

Still, as a sports fan (yes, even football), I believe that leaders can learn lessons from the field—be it a court, a pitch, a ring, or even a gridiron.

Let me list just a few.

Purpose. Down in Happy Valley, where Penn State plays football in the shadow of Mount Nitany, they call him “Joe Pa.” The term is as much an endearment as it is a tribute to his longevity. Joe Paterno has been coaching football at Penn State since 1950. One of the secrets of his success is singleness of purpose. He prepares his teams to play; he instills them with a purpose to win. Paterno puts his players in a position to play their best; and by doing so he lets their individual sense of purpose blend with the team’s purpose. It’s why his Penn State teams have racked up nearly 400 wins in his years as either assistant or head coach. Joe Pa knows the value of purpose; it drives him to share it with his players.

Just as good teams have goals, effective leaders have purpose. They communicate the vision so that everyone on their team understands his role and what he must do to achieve it.

Preparation. Bill Walton, a superstar center and current sports broadcaster, tells the story of how much he wanted to play for John Wooden, the legendary coach of UCLA basketball who captured eight NCAA titles in nine years. On Walton’s first day of practice, Coach Wooden, the soft-spoken Hoosier, called his players together for the first time. Walton could only imagine the words of wisdom the man they called the Wizard of Westwood would impart.

Wooden surprised Walton by tacking a different tact. “Boys, first we’re going to learn to tie our shoes.” And from there, he showed the boys how to wear their socks so they wouldn’t develop blisters. Wooden knew from his years both on the court and on the sidelines the value of starting everyone on the same page. That’s the lesson of preparation in sports. Start everyone on the team with an overview of the basics. Assume nothing; teach everything.

Preparation applies equally to the business environment. It requires an understanding of the current situation as well as looking forward to the future. Good managers prepare their people and provide them with the tools and resources they will need to succeed.

Persistence. For more than thirty-three years, he labored hard on the “field of dreams” to achieve his dream of coaching in a World Series. On his first trip as manager to the Fall Classic, he piloted the Florida Marlins to the championship. His name is Jim Leyland. And when he was interviewed after the final game, one of the first things Leyland said was that this championship was for all the guys in minors who are riding the buses. Don’t give up he advised; if I can make it, so can you.

Most of us won’t work for thirty years to achieve a goal, but that does not lessen the importance of holding fast to purpose and being persistent in our commitment to obtain it.

Adaptability. Wayne Gretzky, the all-time scoring leader in the NHL, considers his chief skill the ability to pass the puck to where players will be, not where they are. “During the game, all hockey players see the game from ice level, except Wayne,” claimed former teammate Mike Krushelnyski. “He sees it from the press box.”*

Change is not so much an aspect of business as “business” itself. Only those individuals who can adapt to change and put themselves in position to make points will succeed.

Agility. When it comes to quickness and grace, Michael Jordan is essence of agility. That he can fly is assumed; that he can change direction in mid-air is mystifying. No one in the history of the game has been as so multi-dimensional as Michael. On offense, his shot is rhythmically pure; on defense, his aggression is barely caged. He can put both elements of his game together in a package that gives him the will and the power to do what he wants and when he wants to do it. His agility, coupled with his drive and determination, gives him the aura of invincibility because he can start, stop, spin, wheel, and gyrate on a dime.

Agility in business is the ability to change direction in response to changing market conditions. Agile businesses do not wait to react; they exist in a constant steady of readiness. Some are even in motion already and put themselves in position to make decisions to serve their customers.

Attitude. Is there a person in all of sports who can be as upbeat and inspirational as George Foreman, a former heavyweight boxing champion who regained the crown after two decades out of the ring? Maybe, but he or she is unlikely to be as entertaining as George.

Foreman is a charming storyteller who likes to tell tales on himself. One favorite relates his experience with Muhammed Ali when they met in Zaire for the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1975. Young George came out swinging hard; for round after round, he pummeled Ali against the ropes. After awhile of absorbing the barrage of blows, Ali muttered, “You done yet, George?” Having exhausted himself, George gulped, “Yup.” And Ali promptly finished him off.

Now, older, wiser, and basking in the love of his family and His God, George is still throwing punches. He enjoys the fight game today. For one reason, he uses his tremendous earning power to help his church activities; and for another, he simply enjoys the attention and the realization that he is actually inspiring others to meet their own personal challenges. When he smiles, he glows, radiating charm and spirit.

The right attitude often can make the difference between the ho-hum and the “let’s do it now.” Attitude emerges from self-confidence tempered with an openness to new ideas. It is a positive force that can energize an entire team. Good attitude is contagious.

Three P’s plus three A’s equals six lessons from the world of sport that managers can leverage themselves to score big.

Now, back to the game… “We’re on the one, if we put the ball into the air…”

*Since Gretzky views the game omnisciently, he can adjust swiftly to the flow to place either himself or his teammates in position to score with cunning accuracy. Watching Wayne hover out and around the net is truly a thing of beauty; it is adaptability in motion.

*Lapointe, Joe (1996) “No Longer the Best, Sill the Great One” New York Times 1/20/97
Article originally appeared in Darwin Magazine Online.

John Baldoni is a leadership and communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of 6 books on leadership, including his newest, How Great Leaders Get Great Results (McGraw-Hill 2006). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at or email him at


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