Business-related journalists and editors tend to believe that interviewing successful people from the world of sport or the military - and then publishing the results - will prove popular with readers. Moreover, given the chance, many business event organisers would opt for speakers from the sporting world in order to guarantee good attendance.
As a journalist and editor, I confess that, over the years, I’ve not been immune from this – and have greatly enjoyed talking to and writing about successful people from the world of sport. That’s especially true when the people concerned are involved with sports that I enjoy.
That executives love to hear stories of leadership from beyond the business world may be a fair generalisation. But are these stories, and the insights they offer, helpful in a business context?
Writing for Headspring Executive Development, an organisation formed by the Financial Times (FT) and IE Business School, Paul Lewis argues that business leaders, would-be leaders and, thereby, the learning and development (L&D) professionals who support them in their development activities, believe that they can gain meaningful leadership lessons from international sports stars, military leaders, artists or even chess grandmasters.
Entertaining not informing
Such alternative perspectives can be helpful in business, says Lewis, but only if they’re precisely defined, limited in scope, or just one element in a carefully-designed programme aimed at stimulating thinking. Cautioning against putting too much faith in these insights, Lewis believes them to be superficial, over-generalised and/or incidental. Their value, he says, is in entertaining rather than informing executives.
For example, an FT article, Hostage negotiation skills provide lessons for the boardroom, asks how ‘parlaying with al-Qaeda kidnappers will translate into tips for the boardroom’. In the article, Suzanne Williams, a former British police hostage negotiator, advises, “You need to be well-prepared, whether you’re talking to some terrorists or going into a big meeting.”
She goes on to say that lessons in how to talk tough to kidnappers can help women, especially those prone to self-doubt, in their salary negotiations – providing that their approach is ‘evidence-based rather than impassioned.’ Yet maybe the hostage paradigm has more applications for an employer trying to reduce the pay-out (to the kidnapper) than for the employee trying to extract more money.
Life and death decisions
In the real world, few corporate leaders make life and death decisions. Yet this doesn’t discourage applying insights from military leaders to executive development.
The brutally stark realities of war determine how the armed services goes about its business. They drive discipline and training, foster a deep and desperate camaraderie, and create a sense of higher purpose.
Do these realities translate to the business world? For example, would a senior officer switch sides during a war because the pay is better? Lewis argues that narrowly-defined areas might provide some learning value for companies – in areas including improving logistics or feedback techniques, for example. But even in these areas, the consequences of falling short within the corporate world are seldom tragic.
Bill Taylor writing in the Harvard Business Review says that sport provides another over-egged comparison with, and ‘terrible metaphor’ for, the corporate world. Taylor claims that the ‘competitive dynamic is totally different’ because sports people work towards a more clearly defined outcome: victory.
Other fundamental differences to consider include that, unlike much of the corporate world where output can be hard to identify, sports performance is usually highly measurable and clearly attributable. In sport, no premium is placed on ‘looking the part’, having the right accent, or merely being noticeable in the workplace.
However, managing people - especially oversized egos – is a key area where sport does, indeed, offer valuable lessons for business.
Perhaps the least useful analogy is the corporate ‘chessboard’, says Headspring’s Lewis. A chess match - one against one, neatly framed by 64 squares, 32 pieces and unchanging rules - couldn’t be further from the ambiguity of business. While some observers liken chess strategy to the forward thinking of corporate scenario planning, Bobby Fischer, the former world chess champion once said, “People think there are all these options but there’s only one right move.” And, when asked what other areas of life chess is good for, Fischer’s great rival, Boris Spassky, thought for a while and then replied, “Nothing.”
While Lewis maintains there’s an important – if sometimes fuzzy – connection between an entertaining, ‘after-dinner’ style speech and applicable business insights, he believes that there may be better ways to achieve these insights than via accounts of sporting triumphs or military successes. Instead, he suggests focusing on less glamorous leadership situations, such as tight budgets, compromises, as well as relentless mundane demands from stakeholders, staff and end-users. In these cases, he suggests asking for the views of the leader of a municipal government.
Or, maybe there’s something to learn from heads of organisations who spend their days cajoling low-paid, bureaucratically-encumbered staff, battling flagging morale while seeking innovative ways to engage often indifferent consumers. For this, Lewis suggests seeking insights from elementary school head teachers.
Alternatively, he says, you could find leadership lessons from different sources. The Economist magazine and others have argued that international drugs cartels provide a fascinating study in efficient distribution, pricing models, collaboration, customer loyalty and much more. Others have suggested that the Vatican has much to teach about consistent messaging. The CIA may have something useful to say about researching your competitors and managing risks. The problem is that such people tend not to feature on the books of speaker agencies.
Arguably, says Lewis, a valuable skills pool that L&D departments might tap are leading business journalists. While not performing the classic leader roles associated with sports stars or military chiefs, journalists’ methods and perspectives can deliver valuable insights on how and why CEOs get things right or wrong. In addition to being well-connected subject experts, no professionals are better at identifying corporate trouble, extracting director’s insights, questioning assumptions, communicating clearly and understanding the consequences of unethical behaviour.
“Executive education needs more of these skills,” says Lewis.
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