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Seven Leadership Lessons from Seven Sports Figures

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  The worlds of sports and business have a lot in common: pressure to always be the best, the need to take big risks for high rewards and the constant battle to remain ahead of the competition.  Despite the cutthroat nature often associated with both realms, there are plenty of valuable lessons corporate leaders can learn from athletes and coaches from all different sports.  What follows are some proven methods for success taken straight from the field (as well as the court, track and pool) that can be applied in the office environment.

Give it your all – Legendary long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine was known for the famous quote, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”  With a career record of winning 78% of the races he entered, including being undefeated in NCAA races at the University of Oregon, Prefontaine certainly knew how to put his best into everything.

Each member of an organization has a unique skill set and experience that they bring to their job.  To remain competitive, it is important encourage each member of the company to apply their individual gifts to achieve the common goals.  When everyone is committed to giving their best, the company will thrive.

Dealing with setbacks – When an attempt to tackle an opponent left a college football player paralyzed, it’s easy to consider this a tragedy.  Yet, for Rutgers University’s Eric LeGrand, the accident hasn’t crushed his spirit or defeated his will to succeed.  With intense determination and a constant smile on his face (as seen on the cover of Sports Illustrated), LeGrand continues to make astounding progress in his recovery.

Every company will encounter setbacks along the way.  While they may vary in scope and significance, it is important to work through these obstacles.  As LeGrand demonstrates, going through an unforeseen crisis and having the ability to bounce back will just make one stronger and better able to face the unexpected.

Never give up – In the 2004 American League playoffs, the New York Yankees had a commanding three game lead over the Boston Red Sox.  While it was assumed the Yankees would easily win a fourth game, it proved to be elusive.  The Red Sox were able to beat their long-time rivals by winning the next four games, becoming the first team in Major League Baseball history to win a seven game series from a 3-0 deficit. 

Whether it’s making a sale, renewing a contract or even hiring that perfect job candidate, it is integral to believe in oneself and never assume that anything is impossible.  As unlikely as a particular win might be, it is never completely out of reach.

No “I” in team – Retired NBA coach Phil Jackson knows a thing or two about teamwork.  He was able to transform the Chicago Bulls from a group of talented players who didn’t perform well together into a cohesive team, leading them to six NBA championships.  Jackson then used the same formula with the LA Lakers, who won three championships under his leadership.

On the court or in the office, teamwork is essential for any organization to thrive.  Though it’s great to have a number of star employees, the organization won’t get ahead if they aren’t working together.  By following Jackson’s example and focusing on teamwork, organizations can ensure they don’t just have great employees, but a great team as well.

Overcoming adversity – Most people would think that someone born with only one hand would never be able to play baseball, let alone professionally.  Well, Jim Abbott could prove them wrong.  In addition to being a star pitcher, Abbott was able to play the field by quickly switching the glove from arm to arm in order to catch and throw the ball.

Abbott’s example is great for any individual trying to start a company, or for a small company looking to play in the big leagues of their industry.  No matter how disadvantaged your situation might seem, determination can help remove the doubt.  As Abbott showed everyone, if there’s a will, there’s a way.

(Perfect) practice makes perfect – Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”  Though he expected a lot of out his players, Lombardi’s philosophy had proven results – as a head coach in the NFL, he never had a losing season.

Learning through experience is a great way for each employee to achieve their full potential.  Companies can channel “perfect practice” by providing their employees with a thorough training program, ensuring that they are well prepared for the job at hand.

Experience counts – While it is hard to find professional athletes in their 40s, there are several athletes who have continued to play, or come out of retirement, well past what others would consider their prime.  Michael Jordan, Martina Navratilova, Dara Torres and Brett Favre are just a few examples of athletes who have come back from retirement for successful second winds.

As the above athletes prove, experienced performers can bring a lot to their teams.  Companies leveraging employees with years of know-how and experience can benefit from their industry expertise.  Moreover, chances are good that these employees know firsthand the other lessons on this list, having even more valuable insight to share.

All of these athletes and coaches come from different backgrounds and different sports, but they share the similar qualities that brought them to the top of their games.  Whether success is measured in touchdowns, homeruns or gold medals, each example proves how dedication to one’s work, determination to be the best and the fortitude to get through life’s biggest challenges can help anyone achieve victory.