Leadership lessons from beyond the business world

Senior executives love to hear stories of leadership from the world of sports, the military and elsewhere. But how helpful are they in business?
Paul Lewis
May 20, 2019

There’s an all-too common conceit in some executive development. Too often, senior executives believe that they can gain meaningful leadership lessons from international sport stars, military leaders, great artists or even chess grandmasters. Such alternative perspectives can be helpful in business. But only if they are precisely defined, limited in scope, or just one element in a carefully-designed programme aimed at stimulating thinking. By trying to make more of such comparisons, insights will tend to be superficial, over-generalised or incidental. Their aim is to flatter or entertain with thrills, spills and gory details, rather than to inform.

In reality, few corporate leaders are ever required to make life and death decisions. This fact hasn’t discouraged the use of one favourite in executive development: the military leader. The stark realities of war determines how the armed services goes about its business. This reality drives discipline and training. It fosters deep camaraderie. It creates a sense of higher purpose. Does it translate to the business world? Try to imagine a senior officer switching sides during a war because the pay is better. To be sure, there will be narrowly-defined areas that might provide some learning value for companies: improving logistics, feedback techniques or preparing personnel for promotion, for example. But even in these areas the consequences of falling short are seldom tragic.

‘Imagine a military general switching sides during a war because the pay is better.’

Another over-egged comparison is with sports – a ‘terrible metaphor for business,’ according to Bill Taylor writing in Harvard Business Review. For starters, the ‘competitive dynamic is totally different’ he says, because sports people work towards a much more clearly defined outcome—i.e. winning a match. There are also more fundamental differences to consider. Unlike much of the corporate world where output can be hard to identify, sports performance is usually highly measurable and clearly attributable. There’s no premium placed on looking the part, having the right accent, or just being seen a lot around the workplace. There is one key area where sport does indeed offer true lessons for business – managing people, especially oversized egos.

Perhaps the least useful analogy is the corporate ‘chessboard.’ It’s a common image used in marketing, and top players are often called upon to bestow wisdom to executives. But a chess match, one against one, neatly framed by 64 squares, 32 pieces and unchanging rules couldn’t be further from the ambiguity of business. True, some observers liken chess strategy to the forward thinking of corporate scenario planning. But as former world chess champion Bobby Fischer once said: ‘People think there are all these options, but there is only one right move.’ Fischer’s great rival Boris Spassky, when asked what other areas of life chess is good for, thought for a while and then replied: ‘Nothing.’

Learning in different guises

There’s an important – if sometimes fuzzy – line to be drawn between the entertaining, ‘after-dinner’ style speech, and truly applicable business insights. There may be better ways to achieve the latter than through dramatic accounts of sporting triumphs or military successes. One might, for example, focus on less glamorous leadership situations: tight budgets, compromises, and relentless mundane demands from stakeholders, staff and end-users. The leader of a municipal government comes to mind. Or maybe there’s something to learn from heads of organisations who spend their days cajoling low-paid, bureaucratically-encumbered staff, battling flagging morale while seeking innovative ways to engage often indifferent consumers – the elementary school head teacher, perhaps?

Alternatively, one might find leadership lessons at the opposite extreme. The Economist magazine, and others, have argued that international drugs cartels provide a fascinating study in efficient distribution, pricing models, collaboration, customer loyalty and much more. Others have suggested that the Vatican has something to teach about consistent messaging. The CIA may provide useful pointers when it comes to researching your competitors and managing risks. Unfortunately, such people tend not to feature on the books of speaker agencies.

Arguably, the most valuable pool of skills that Learning & Development departments might tap are leading business journalists. While not performing the classic leadership roles associated with sports stars or military chiefs, journalists’ methods and perspectives probably deliver more valuable insights on how and why CEOs get things right or wrong. In addition to being well-connected subject experts, no professionals are better at identifying corporate trouble, extracting insights from directors, questioning assumptions, communicating clearly, and understanding the consequences of unethical behaviour.

Executive education needs more of these skills.

Paul Lewis

Editorial Director at Headspring