What Can Leaders Learn From World-Class Athletes?


Watching the highest level of professional athletes is an exhilarating experience. It is truly leadership in motion.

Two events are fresh in my mind:

1) The FIFA World Cup soccer championship in British Columbia when the United States women’s team beat Japan

2) And Wimbledon where tennis players Williams and Djokovic won the championships.

If you watched either of these events, you probably marveled, as I did, at the precision of the organizing entities and the confidence and mental toughness of the players.

In both events you saw an amazing display of strategy, techniques, and tactics.

In watching world-class sporting events and world-class athletes in competition, there are a many lessons both from a personal and an organizational perspective.

Running a World Class Event

On the organizational side, just as competition in these sporting events is fierce, so is competition in the marketplace.

But what can the corporate world learn from the coaches?

The Germans – Soccer

In preparing for the third place soccer match between Germany and England in which England won 1-0, German coach Silvia Neid made the statement:

…the players were sad after the semi-final defeat, but that only lasted for a day, and then we got our focus back and tried to work on certain points that we were keen to improve.

Notice the expression of the emotion of sadness, which is a normal human reaction to events that don’t go exactly as we planned, but they only let the sadness last for a day after which their resolve took over and they focused on improving. (Fifa.com)

The English – Soccer

Mark Sampson, the English coach, gave his respect to their opponents and paid tribute to his players when he said this:

It’s really an incredible result when you take into account the challenge we were facing and the quality of our opponents. We were able to bounce back after our semi-final experience and our performance shows how much quality we have in our squad.” (Fifa.com)

The words that stand out for me are “the quality of our opponents” and “how much quality we have in our squad.”

Marketplace Leadership

The marketplace is filled with worthy opponents and every company needs quality in their squad of employees.

They have to hire a deep bench to be competitive.

Jill Ellis, USA Coach said, “We have gritty players at the back and sophisticated players at the back” and we are left to ask, are our company employees gritty?

Are they well trained, well educated, and sophisticated in their approach to problems? (Fifa.com)

The Leading Ladies

Soccer BallCarli Lloyd was the star of the USA win over Japan. Her play in British Columbia was exceptional. However, I can still see the picture of her shock and embarrassment when she missed the penalty kick in the 2011 World Cup Final.

Not to have the mistake repeated, she scored 3 goals in the first 16 minutes of the match, a feat never before achieved by a soccer player. Lloyd was deemed a leader on the team that in spite of her stardom, promotes strength and unity as a team.

Lessons Learned

The lesson?

Teams at every level in your organization need to have camaraderie and have each other’s backs.

When they start working on a problem that is keeping the company from being competitive in the marketplace, they need to be willing to empty the tank…giving the best of their intellect to solutions and collaborating with team members to come up with the most viable path forward.

Leading With Discipline

Wimbledon is a study in precision of execution for the participants, the audience, and the TV audience.

  • I watched as the line judges stood in unison between points and bent to their knees exactly as the player started his or her service routine.
  • I watched with interest how quickly the ball boys and girls ran on the court to retrieve the balls and how between points they stood at precisely the exact time
  • I watched between games how they stood and faced toward the crowd as if they were sentinels protecting the players against harm.

Every aspect of the event was disciplined.

Leading With Precision

What does this say for the discipline in your company? Granted, workers are not robots to be choreographed. They need freedom throughout the day to work in their own style.

However, in our new book on Discretionary Effort Leadership, Doug Ross and I make the point that there must be certain standards and policies in place that are executed with discipline and precision for the safety of workers and for work to be performed smoothly.

Are there processes in your company that could be improved and executed with more precision?

Qualities of Winners

As Lloyd expressed so eloquently, world-class athletes have a fighting spirit. They are competitive and they play to win. At Wimbledon, I watched players down 0-40 come back to win games and not give up when they were down 2 sets to come back and win the next set.

In the Gentlemen’s quarter finals, French player Richard Gasquet won the fifth set 11 to 9. He was the 24th seed and upset the 4th seed, Swiss player Stan Wawrinka!

If you are down and give up, you have found a permanent solution to a temporary condition.

A fighting spirit applies to you as an individual and to your company. The marketplace is chaotic and can be unkind. The company that withstands the winds of marketplace challenges must use people who can come back from disappointments such as glitches in product launches, lost sales, and late shipments to a prime customer.

Leading With a Fighting Spirit

The person with a fighting spirit learns how to work around a problem with the product launch, makes it up to the customer, and is determined to find an even better customer than the one they lost.

World class athletes have confidence and mental discipline, traits that compliment a fighting spirit. By their body language, the soccer and tennis players I observed exhibited confidence which gave them the mental discipline to shake off a bad kick, a poor return or the powerlessness to return an ace.

They develop calmness under pressure. In an interview after winning Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic said this:

“But if there is one thing that I learned in the sport is to recover fast and to leave things behind me and move on. Within a couple of weeks you really need to get your things together and motivate yourself to be able to play on a high level in another Grand Slam.”

He admitted that he was disappointed and heartbroken after the loss in the French Open to Wawrinka.

The Need for Coaches

As the interview with Djokovic unfolded, it came out that his childhood coach had warned him about storms and calms which obviously helped to form the mental toughness to play through defeats to victory.

Many times during Wimbledon, the camera panned the boxes where the coaches sat and the commentators spoke of the number of coaches each player employed. Often there were four or five coaches for one athlete. Djokovic hired as his head coach, Boris Becker, former world No. 1 professional tennis player from Germany.

I have found that the culture in some companies puts a stigma on asking for help or admitting that you need a coach or mentor. Taking a lesson from world-class athletes, good mentors and coaches are essential for corporate teams to rise above the fray and distinguish themselves with significant accomplishments.

I think this shines a light on how important the leadership team is to winning championships and capturing more market share for the marketplace is a championship competition.

So do you lead your team like world-class champions? Do you allow your “players” the breadth and space to achieve greatness? What can you do to instill a champion attitude in the people that you lead? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Karla (Kofoed) Brandau
Karla Brandau the founder of Workplace Power Institute
She is an expert at infusing time management principles with Microsoft Outlook
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Common Sense Leadership

Common Sense Leadership: 3 Things You’ve Been Right About All Along

Common Sense Leadership

Most leaders spend intentional time, energy, resources, and effort investing in their learning. However, there is some learning that is relatively easy to acquire for all leaders.

And this type of learning has tremendous value as well. We call this Common Sense Leadership.

Common Sense Often Isn’t Very Common

Common Sense, or C’mon (have some) Sense Leadership, refers to the no-brainer leadership truths that most leaders innately know to be true. Unfortunately this isn’t the case for every leader. Common sense is like a 6th sense (aka: knowing the obvious) that every leader needs, but only some have.

So if you have been gifted as a common sense leader – this is your “I told you so” moment. However, I’m sure your leadership spidey sense will tingle warning you from acting on your temptation to gloat.

On the other hand, if by chance you’ve been blessed with not having the commons sense gift (notice the positive spin); don’t go rush to turn in your resignation letter citing lack of common sense.

This writing is for you as well. Some people are simply too brilliant to be common. This will help you better understand us mere common sense mortals and our primitive leadership world. 

Common Sense Leadership

Here are 3 examples of common sense leadership. These are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but common sense dictates that we keep it simple…

1. NO ONE Likes a Jerk

It doesn’t matter how powerful you are, how high up the food chain you sit; the truth is, if you’re not good to people, they won’t like you…period.

Now some may say, “I don’t need people to like me, I just need them to respect me.” Well, if you had common sense (on the phone) it would tell you that people don’t really respect people they don’t like. Although is not the goal to please everyone, common sense would tell you (if you read its text messages) that is should also not be the goal to tick-off everyone either.

2. Not Being The Real You Makes You Look Bad

It is so NOT common sense to act like you know something or are good at something” when it’s obvious that’s not the case (trust me…it’s obvious). 

People won’t tell you that your presentations are boring or your meetings are the worst use of their time; they’re simply going to internalize that you’re not a capable or competent leader. 

Instead of simply saying, “you know what, I don’t know“, some leaders attempt to impress us with their big words and “look how many leadership books I’ve read” prowess.

As a leader, common sense would tell you the best way to have others believe you is by being your true self. The more I’ve grown as a leader, the more I’ve grown comfortable using phrases such as, I’m horrible at that” or “I don’t know the answer to that.” The funny thing is, I tell people that I can confidently answer any question they ask me! I can because I can always answer, “I don’t know, I’m not sure, or I have no idea!” 

You see, the things that I’m not good at as a leader – those are not my weaknesses (in other words – they don’t belong to me); they are actually someone else’s strengths. I remember someone once saying that, “weakness is only a weakness when you attempt to operate in it.” 

Common sense says (ok, I promise this is my last time) stop operating in someone else’s areas strength; because this usually end in low performing outcomes. 

Try this for 30 days and watch the amazing results come rolling in! (Results may vary due to…well…common sense)

3. Leadership Is Not As Easy As It Looks

I have to confess –  sometimes I’m not impressed with what I read or hear others say about leadership. They say things that sound great in fairy tale scenarios, but would be disastrous in real life application.

The truth is that leadership is often complex and extremely difficult at times. Yet still, many attempt to make leadership simple.

Leadership is NOT simple.

In my book The Next CEO: A Leadership Parable, I place readers in a complicated leadership tension to help them understand how real leadership situations are not as clear cut as some try to make them out to be. If leadership was simple everyone would be doing it right?

One More Thing…

Common sense tip:

Never try to simplify complicated matters…it only makes matters more complicated.

So there you have it. Yes – you were right all along, especially about how uncommon common sense really is. What other common sense leadership tips have you always known? I encourage you to share them so that some can add it to their learning, while others can add it to their, “things I’ve been right about all along” list.

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Dr. Tommy Shavers

Dr. Tommy Shavers is President of Tommy Speak LLC. and Unus Solutions Inc.
His lenses are Leadership, Behavior, Communication, and Teamwork
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Don't Stop Believin'

On Leadership and Your Personal Theme Music

Don't Stop Believin'

Who doesn’t want their own theme music? Seriously. Wouldn’t it be awesome to walk into a room the sound of your favorite song announcing your arrival?

But what if the song playing in your head is “Don’t Stop Believing” but your team hears “I Hate You” when you walk into a room.

So what is the theme song that is playing to you and your audience and what can you do about it?

On Leadership and Your Personal Theme Music

Pick the song that represents your leadership

Regardless of your favorite genre of music, there is probably a song that reminds you of a time that you felt powerful, happy, humble, and engaged with life.  Think of a few songs like that and listen to them again.

Listen to each a few times and write down why they fell like your leadership theme song.  It could be that they speak to your goals or are an anthem of action/feeling.

What ever the reason, make sure its a song that feels right to you.

Find out what song the team associates to you

In an upcoming status meeting (or development conversation or whatever), find out what song the people on your team associate most closely to you.  You can do this subtlety or just come right out and ask.  It’s not a typical question and can be a good way to really engage them.

You might even have a conversation about their song, who knows???

It’s likely that there will be a gap between the sentiments/meaning of the songs that people associate with you and your own view. This is actually a good thing.

Bridge the theme song gap

List out the attributes that the people on your team associated with you and the song they selected.

  • Are those the ways you want to be known?
  • Do they advance your team’s success?

If yes, just keep doing what you have been doing.  If they don’t think through different ways to act so you get you closer to your Leadership Theme song.  There are no right answers, but it might be things like

  • Give more personal recognition
  • Share more about projects
  • Help to remove obstacles more
  • Be more available to them

What ever it is, make sure you list out 2-3 ways you will bridge that gap every quarter and work on it.


Remember there is no right song to be, but what ever you pick make sure your actions show the meaning you’ve associated to it.  It’s a little bit like having a personal mission/vision.

It is a method to view decisions and actions through.

Use it as a measure or barometer for whether the action you are taking will be in line with your meaning of the song. If its not, do something different.  If that happens often, maybe its time for a new song.

Your leadership theme song is just another way to think about how to be more of the leader you want and your team needs you to be.   Have fun with it.

What’s your leadership theme song and why? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Anil Saxena is a President & Senior Consultant Cube 214 Consulting
He helps teams create environments that generate repeatable superior results
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