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Leadership lessons from the world of sport

Moorad Choudhry, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Brunel University
Tuesday, 20 Aug 2013 | 3:52 AM ET
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno | Getty Images

Corporates all over the world, large and small,are big on teaching "leadership skills". Team building, management off-sites,the "Executive MBA", there are countless different ways employed to impart the art of "leadership" among grey-suited middle management.

The "motivational speaker" is a favored technique. Bring in some captain of industry, or sports psychologist, or media personality, to speak at your company off-site, it always breaks up the monotony and is sometimes even entertaining. But how relevant is it?

A common speaker-type is the former military man (and it is always a man). Perhaps an ex-general, saying a few words on how they approached leadership and team-building when on active service.

Except that there is very little in common between leading a platoon of infantrymen and running an office. Really, very little. In the Army it is, literally, life and death. If one gets it wrong, or the team doesn't work together, there is a very good chance that people will die. Furthermore, it is unlikely that certain members of the team can benefit while others suffer. In war, one wins or loses together. So the art of leadership is a function of different motives and aspirations when serving in the armed forces. First, it is imperative that the team be well led, and respond as one. And second, the entire team really does have one common, and shared, objective.

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These do not apply in the corporate environment. Here bureaucracy, process and "office politics" reflect the fact that first, no-one's life is on the line and second, that it is possible for the company, or the team, to not achieve its goals and yet for certain individuals still to benefit.

One can receive a bonus even when the bank or trading desk has lost money. We all know people who have been promoted at the same time that customer complaints have risen. Individuals have gone on to senior positions even as the teams they ran just prior to that delivered nothing.

These are common occurrences in the corporate world. Platitudes abound, everyone "puts the customer first" or says "our people are our greatest asset", but these are as accurate of reality as motherhood and apple pie are of the American Dream.

There is a more relevant way. Just recently I had the privilege to play in a sponsors match with the management team at AFC Wimbledon, a club in the 4th division of English professional football. The club manager is Neal Ardley and his assistant is Neil Cox, who are both ex-Premiership footballers. My time on the pitch was limited, around 20 minutes in the first half and 25 minutes in the second. But I learnt more in those forty-five minutes playing alongside those two gentlemen than I ever did in thousands of hours of courses, off-sites, MBA programs and management theory during the last 25 years in London's financial industry.

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So here is my cut-out-and-keep 8-point guide to leadership – it should be required reading for everyone in a suit aspiring to lead teams. They transfer easily to the corporate environment, and they are much cheaper to learn than an MBA:

1) Treat everyone as equals in the way you speak to them and communicate instructions.

I noticed that Neil Cox didn't vary the manner in which he spoke to individuals in the team, whatever their ability or familiarity or position. He delivered instructions in exactly the same way to everyone. This builds tremendous loyalty and confidence.

2) Lead by example.

This is nothing new. We've all heard this one. The difference was that these two chaps really did do it. They put in the effort and, what's more, it was obvious that they were putting in the effort. We could all see it. This has a tremendous inspirational effect on team members.

3) Provide continuous encouragement.

Everyone likes to feel appreciated, both when things are going well and when they are going badly. Ardley and Cox delivered encouragement at every possible opportunity, for both minor and major pieces of work. It makes a big difference and would translate well in a corporate environment.

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4) Do not dwell on mistakes, and do not apportion blame.

When a player made a mistake, it wasn't pointed out because the individual concerned was aware he had made it, and it wasn't dwelt on. We've done it, let's move on and try again. This is tremendously inspiring and makes everyone try harder.

5) Make everyone feel part of the same team. No cliques, no favourites, no inner circles.

Whatever the reality of the situation, it is enough that everyone feels that they are part of the same team and that no one is more favored than the other. Again, this is a platitude espoused by every office manager; sadly in 9 out of 10 offices it just isn't true.

6) Involve everyone, and keep involving them.

This follows on from (5), but one way to inspire people to want to follow you is by involving them and, by so doing, make them feel that you trust them to do a good job. The modern office equivalent of this is "don't micromanage, and learn to delegate". Again, we've heard this often enough but the difference between most corporate managers and the Wimbledon management team was that the latter really did do this.

7) Trust your subordinates' judgement.

It will make them want to do well and inspire them even more. Neil Cox and Neal Ardley embody this trait perfectly.

8) Act so everyone is aware they have the same objective.

This is the easy bit in a football team. There are no individual winners among the 11 players if the team loses. But by applying 1 to 7 above, Neal Ardley and Neil Cox at least cover off the essential part of team management first. After that, it's up to the players.

People define "leadership" in a number of ways. But really it boils down to inspiring people to want to follow you. As long as they pay a salary to attract staff, corporate management won't be tested on this. But there's an easy way to test it. Take a poll among those in your team who would follow you to your next job for a cut in pay. If the answer is zero, then you aren't a leader.

Professor Moorad Choudhry is at the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Brunel University and author of The Principles of Banking (John Wiley & Sons 2012).

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