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4 leadership lessons we can learn from sports

6 min read


I recently watched a high school state track and field championship. At the beginning of the evening, the excitement among the athletes was palpable. Each athlete and team had such determination and grit — but, of course, not all of them were going to win their races or the meet.

At the end of the evening, I watched as one coach brought his female and male athletes together. Some had won their events, others had placed, and others did not. The young women and men did not win their overall championships, though they came in second and third, respectively.

It was clear they had wanted to do better. The coach rallied his team in the middle of the track, with their arms linked around one another, and talked about their journey through the season. He celebrated their accomplishments as individuals and as a team. After tears, hugs and laughter, the team walked away from this impressive display of coaching excited to train over the summer and head into the next season.

Just as teams and athletes lose and move on, we can learn valuable lessons from how coaches and athletes manage what some might consider failure. Not all teams can be the champions of their sport — there can only be one. Coaches routinely work with athletes to help them manage failure and rebound to be even better.

Here are some of the best tips I have gleaned from sports that can help employees (athletes) and managers (coaches) better manage setbacks and failures.

1. Clearly define success. Dictionaries define failure as a lack of success, but its true definition is personal and subjective. Amanda Scarborough, ESPN softball analyst and coach, stresses that coaches and managers must clearly define what constitutes success, mediocrity and failure. Lack of clarity from the coach about the ultimate goal sends conflicting messages and creates confusion and insecurity. Good coaches tell and show their players what they expect. Amanda also points out that winning the game may not be the only definition of success.

Similarly, business managers must clearly define success, failure and mediocrity and outline specific outcomes and directions. Just as coaches review winning plays and techniques, strong managers provide examples of successful projects and outcomes, and coach their employees to the desired outcomes.  John Wooden, the famous basketball coach, once said that the journey (the practice) is better than the end (the game). Wooden’s philosophy was never to stress winning; he believed the outcomes would simply be a result of the team’s collective preparation.

2. Fail fast and move on. In his book “Players First,” University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari stresses the need for players to “fail fast” so they can learn from their mistakes, make corrections and move on. He explains that bouncing back faster leads to success faster. This advice also holds true in the business world. Gail Kelly, the CEO of Australia’s second‐largest bank, explains, “How are you going to learn and how are you going to innovate unless you fail? You need to fail fast, quickly, and then get up and off you go again.”  Adapting to a rapidly‐changing world requires the ability to fail fast, make the necessary adjustments and move forward with confidence.

Managers can play a valuable role by helping their employees learn how to bounce back.Even successful companies embrace failures and figure out how to move past them proactively. The history of business has consistently shown the utility of failure a as springboard to success. Grey Advertising actively promotes the idea that one must try and often fail in order to succeed. On its company culture page, Grey highlights the quarterly Heroic Awards, noting that innovation occurs “by embracing the importance of trying, failing, dusting yourself off, and trying again.” The award serves as a strong symbol for employees to know that it is okay to be imperfect and to keep working toward success.

Similarly, in an October 2013 Forbes article, Halah Touryalai profiled the odyssey of the Domino’s pizza chain, which in 2009 put its CEO in a commercial to distinctively acknowledge that Domino’s pizza did not taste good. Patrick Doyle publicly apologized for Domino’s failure to deliver a quality product and promised to improve the recipe. This risky and honest move paid off. Domino’s 2013 revenue was $1.8 billion, it is growing faster than its competitors and opening more locations.

3. Recognize when to rally. Don Shula is the all-time winningest coach in the NFL. Spending 31 years as a pro football coach, he holds the record for most career wins and is the only coach to have had teams in six Super Bowls. Shula had a “24 hour rule,” a policy of looking forward instead of retreating from the loss. He allowed himself, his coaching staff and his players only 24 hours to celebrate a victory or wallow over a defeat. During those 24 hours, Shula encouraged them to feel their emotions of success or failure as deeply as they could.  The next day, it was time to put their focus and energy into preparing for their next challenge.

Like the best coaches, managers should routinely stress to employees that everyone makes mistakes, and the sooner they accept this fact, the easier it will be to recover. As Margie Warrell noted in a recent article: “Iyou’ve made a mistake – whether taking the wrong job, or not delivering the right result, or simply not managing yourself or others as well as you’d have liked – the most important thing is never to let it define you.”  

4. Taking yourself out of the game altogether can be costly. Coaches stress that players need to have the courage to take the big shot, to reach for the prize instead of giving in to failure. Research shows that task-focused thinking after failure leads to improved performance. Self-talk that focuses on correcting errors and attaining goals will motivate you to keep trying and move on from a setback. The fear of failure can prevent employees from trying new things and achieving their personal best, so managers can help make it safe for employees to fail by emphasizing that failure does not define them, and by alleviating their self‐doubt by encouraging them to try again. As Michael Jordan said, “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something.  But, I can’t accept not trying.”

Managers must recognize that in business, as in sports, failure is possible and frequent. What happens afterward is what is important. I offer you these words to live by from coach Tom Krause, the co-author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”: “There are no failures – just experiences and your reactions to them.”  

Christine M. Riordan

Christine M. Riordan, PhD, is the 10th president of Adelphi University in New York. Her writing focuses on diversity and inclusion, leadership effectiveness, and career success. Follow her on Twitter at @Chris_M_Riordan. 

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