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What business leaders learn from sport? Quite a lot more than how to not drop the ball

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Many believe sport to be a metaphor for life. Michael Peiniger believes it’s as much a metaphor for business leadership.

Peiniger is the founder of Kameleons, a boutique leadership and team-building consultancy. He wants to pick up lessons from sporting fields and throw some into the workplace in the hope business leaders would find them just as useful.

“Australians believe there are life lessons that can be learnt from sport – dedication, courage and teamwork – but in my experience, those lessons could be applied far more readily to leadership in the workplace than they are,” he told Anthill in an interview, suggesting business leaders might benefit a lot more from sport than merely watching it from vantage hospitality boxes.

Building character

Peiniger believes many people are reluctant to accept the link between sport and business. But lessons are there to be learnt, he asserts.

Take the life of a successful sportsman. He or she demonstrates persistence, hardship and drive; focus relentlessly on a sometimes lofty and distant goal, and those in teams demonstrate “teamwork, mate-ship and group values.”

“The preparation it takes to prepare a world-class athlete for competition is astounding – business leaders could learn a lot about building culture from the lessons in sport,” says Peiniger.

There’s more.

Take character. Some like American basketball player and coach John Gooden, famously, believed “sports do not build character,” but only “reveal it.” Regardless, it is a quality that is clearly not in abundance in workplaces. Or consider leadership in a crisis – something batsmen, for example, face on a daily basis in most matches. Or taking tough and critical decisions, and standing by one’s actions – something that is the everyday life of a team captain. Peiniger calls tough decisions “one of the biggest challenges and defining attributes of leadership.”

Michael Clarke and his team management faced such an acid test during a tough, and winless, tour of India earlier this year.

“The lessons for executive from both the Australian trip to India and in the Indian trip to Australia are clear,” Peiniger says. “Being a successful leader in one environment does not guarantee you success in another.”

So, how does a business leadership coach like Peiniger view Clarke and team manager Arthur Clarke’s decision to suspend four players including vice captain Shane Watson for not doing their homework?

Leaders are not infallible

There’s never an easy answer.

“As with most teams, it is far less important how I viewed the decision as to how the members of the team viewed the decision,” says Peiniger, who spent 14 years in the Air Force and an additional nine years in industry. “Many teams make decisions that seem strange to outsiders – different cultures, races and industries display norms that seem strange to those unfamiliar with them.”

Consequently, Peiniger believes the incident could be called a “fantastic example of leadership” if the four players had been told, and they had understood, that they would be held to a “new standard.” But if the outcomes were not communicated and this result was a surprise, then there could be a “lot to learn,” and it might be a tad unfair to blame the four cricketers.

And what about the recall of Watson, eventually to lead the side in the fourth Test against India? What message does this send to other cricketers, and the rest of the team? What would be the repercussions of a similar thing in a corporate environment?

“Internally, I think this would be seen in a good light,” Peiniger says.

“Shane Watson, like three other players, did not complete what was asked of him. As the vice captain, it is important that he is not held higher than any other player and must be held to account to the same level as others. This is where some businesses differ from sport – the expectation that those higher in the business should not be held to account to the same level as their subordinates,” he adds.

Watson, as many of you would recall, served out one-match suspension and led the national team as Clarke was injured.

“Leaders must remember that they are not infallible, they do – and should be able to – make mistakes. In my opinion, learning from a mistake and then being able to demonstrate how you have improved is a strength of a team, not a weakness,” Peiniger says.

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