Athletes, trainers, and sports journalists frequently invoke a connection between athletic performance and leadership ability. Certainly, we have observed many athletes who demonstrate leadership skills at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Tim Bezbatchenko, who visited the University and spoke about how his leadership studies helped make him an effective leader of Toronto Football, is one prominent example. Kyle Lauletta is a second. But how exactly does playing a sport boost one’s leadership capacity? Below are some reflections that came to mind as I ran the Sunrise 5K at the OBX.

What running teaches us about leadership:

  1. Persistence in the face of adversity. Anyone who has trained for a team, a season, or an event, knows that athletes need to learn to overcome a multitude of obstacles, great or small. Leadership, too, is about persistence. Leaders (and their followers) need to make sure they don’t give up in the face of adversity. Indeed, effective leaders need to be a major source of encouragement and inspiration for the group as a whole.
  2. Owning up to the situation. From a young age, we teach athletes not to whine or gloat. It doesn’t always work, but those are two important lessons for leaders to learn. Leadership is about persuasion and getting things done. Sometimes, as on the sports field, it’s about a group win, and, if so, some other group loses. It’s important for leaders to own both the losses and the wins that come, and to make sure that they don’t blame others for the loss or gloat when they win.
  3. Relying on your training. This is commonplace in sport, but it’s just as important in complex leadership situations. Leaders can make predictions about a marketplace or an organizational shift, but the future is filled with uncertainty and none of us can predict accurately all the time. When the unexpected happens, a player is injured or the wind picks up on a cross country course, the athletes rely on their training to play through the challenge. Leaders, and the organizations they lead, also need to rely on what they know and the people and systems in place in order to lead through the unexpected.
  4. Keeping the intensity of effort. Runners sometimes reduce their effort on the downhill. It’s certainly tempting to coast a bit, keeping your speed constant and reducing your effort. In an organization, we might sometimes think that we can let down our guard when we’ve earned an award or outpaced last year’s performance. This is a mistake, and a leadership failure. Good leaders know that when the going is easy, it’s time to kick up the pace a bit and do even better than in the past.
  5. The importance of showing gratitude. Races don’t happen in a vacuum, and even a so-called individual sport like running is better because people help out. Volunteers wake at dawn, set up the course, and pick up the trash when it’s over. The race is better if runners show they’re grateful for this support. Leaders, too, are better if they practice gratitude.
Leadership and sport

Sandra J. Peart


Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.


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