What Can Sports Teach Us about a Leadership Mind-set
We asked three Booth experts: alumnus Jesse Nading, ’16, professor George Wu, and current student Katherine Bartels.
What can football teach us about accountability? How can running cross country help us set appropriate goals? And how can building a rugby team from the ground up illuminate new ways to communicate? Here, three Boothies with a love for sports reflect on their own athletic experiences and how they’ve applied those leadership lessons to the business world.
Jesse Nading, ’16, is an engagement manager in McKinsey & Company’s Denver office and a former linebacker for the National Football League’s Houston Texans.
Football is a fantastic way to learn about teamwork and accountability. When I was playing for coach Gary Kubiak and the Texans, after each game, we gathered as a team to watch the week’s best and worst plays. Early on, I was nervous that I would be featured in the worst plays in front of my teammates, but what I quickly realized was that, one, nearly everyone ended up on the worst-plays reel at some point and that, two, a single person was rarely responsible for either a good or a bad play. Naturally, everyone wanted to be on the week’s highlight reel. But we also knew there would come a time when we would be held accountable for our performance, and, while painful at times to watch, it was rarely a negative experience.
We didn’t dread the self-reflection because transparency and accountability were part of our normal operating model. As a team, we could quickly identify mistakes, acknowledge them, and pivot to developing a plan to be better for the next week’s game. The simple ritual of collectively celebrating and scrutinizing our play increased the level of trust we had as a team and created an atmosphere that encouraged players to take calculated risks to make big plays, facilitated honest communication across the team, and held everyone (coaches included) accountable for mistakes.
“Team members excel and do their best work when leaders give them space and trust while keeping everyone accountable and celebrating team successes.”
That process of open reflection is one I was surprised not to see more of in the business world, where people often seem hesitant to openly discuss mistakes. The best-performing project teams I’ve seen find a way to regularly schedule dedicated working sessions to openly talk about performance (good and bad) and push to create a culture where you can have a transparent conversation and say, for example, “Hey, we didn’t execute this project as well as we could have. What could each one of us have done better to drive a better outcome?” Building in this time requires real investment from leadership, but the teams that make the investment tend to function at a higher level, create the most rewarding experiences for each team member, and grow the fastest.
Valuing transparency and acknowledging that doing great work requires risk, and therefore mistakes, is what enables the higher levels of trust and accountability that are hallmarks of great teams. When I played for the Texans, we had a defense that was talented but underperforming. A new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, came in, and we became one of the top defenses in the NFL. His basic thesis was that if he could simplify our game plan, such that each player was able to be accountable for his role, we could play faster and have the talent to win. It was a matter of trusting the guys to simply beat the opposing player—think less and play faster. It was a powerful lesson. I didn’t anticipate that perspective to be so applicable to the business world, but I’ve found it’s impactful in both sports and business. Team members excel and do their best work when leaders give them space and trust while keeping everyone accountable and celebrating team successes.
George Wu, the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science, was a high-school and college runner. His research includes topics such as goal making.
My high-school cross-country team was winless the year before I entered high school. In my junior year we won a single meet, breaking a 47-meet losing streak, before finishing dead last out of 16 teams in our conference meet. But the following year we went 14-and-1 and won the conference meet.
When I led the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership, we thought about the challenges of making individuals and teams more effective. The business world is challenging because even though people are members of teams, we tend to think primarily about our roles as individual contributors. As you move up within an organization, the boundary between the individual and the team becomes murkier, and you need to reassess how your goals fit into corporate strategy and objectives.
Cross country probably seems like an odd team sport: after all, it’s a collective of individuals each trying to run as fast as they can. However, although the effort out on the course is yours alone, a lot of leadership is about defining the vision and ambitions for collective success, and helping others who are striving to be their best. Even though my junior year cross country team had been really unsuccessful, we knew that we weren’t that crummy. We had a lot of talent and potential, and set an audacious goal to win the conference meet the next year. The summer before my senior year, a big group of us got together and ran lots and lots of miles.
“Challenging but not absurd goals bring out the best in people, and it’s the job of a leader in the company to set that vision.”
Part of my academic research focuses on goals. In my 30s, I set a goal to run a mile every year on my birthday in five minutes or less. I met my goal for eight of the 10 years. But when I met the goal, I only just did so—lots of 4:58s and 4:59s. That became an impetus for some of the research that I did involving marathon running: goals help to motivate people to do better because falling short of a goal is loss, and people hate losses. However, when people reach the goal, they have little motivation to exceed it or do better.
Going back to my high-school cross-country team, after winning the league championship—our big goal—we went to the state meet, and we were pretty mediocre. Once we achieved our goal, it was difficult to stay motivated.
In the business world it’s important to set goals that are appropriately challenging. If your goals are too hard, they can demotivate the group, but if they’re too easy, you will exceed them but not achieve much more. Challenging but not absurd goals bring out the best in people, and it’s the job of a leader in the company to set that vision.
Katherine Bartels is a student in the Full-Time MBA Program and co-chair of the Booth Rugby Club. She recently completed a summer internship at athletic gear company Nike.
There hasn’t been a robust women’s rugby team at Booth since the 1980s. But over the past year I’ve leveraged free team workouts and fun social activities to bring people into the fold. I’m planning programming over the next year that is going to make the rugby team even less intimidating, to make it more inclusive.
That’s an important leadership skill to develop: how to not only include the members of an organization that you already have, but also position the organization in a way that makes it more accessible to others. By framing rugby as something anyone can learn and participate in—something that’s possible to join if you haven’t played previously—and as a sport that will allow you to meet new people and get to know people both at Booth and in other MBA communities, we can draw more women who might otherwise be intimidated by an unfamiliar sport. You have to be tactful and strategic when you’re thinking about diversity—that framework has helped us field a full team.
There are more opportunities for disagreement than for agreement in a team environment. This makes the team setting a great vehicle for understanding how to have appropriate debate and discourse, how to appreciate people’s various skills, and how to leverage them effectively. You also learn how to bring nuance to your language and use words carefully. The rugby club team connects me to a huge global MBA community, especially because rugby is an international sport. We have people with a variety of languages and ability levels, people who know how to play rugby and people who don’t, people who want to be competitive and people who more so want to be part of the community. All of them have strengths that are opportunities for the team, even if they have different goals or approaches.
“On the playing field there are a range of backgrounds, skill sets, and abilities that you have to learn to speak to and balance.”
The skills I’ve learned in wrangling the rugby club and folding people into the team have really come in handy in my business experience so far. This past summer, I was the global merchandising strategy intern at Nike. We determined the cadence of new innovation, examined how products are distributed around the globe, and explored upcoming areas. I specifically looked at the retail market space—how people are shopping differently because of the proliferation of digital devices and whether exclusive products can help sales.
Merchandising is the hub of Nike. It’s the driver of what products are produced. As a result, there are more folks than I could accurately count who have to weigh in to make sure the right products are making it to market. So it’s a very cross-functional role. I had to have excellent communication skills as well as a lot of empathy for various stakeholders and their different needs and perspectives.
It was a lot like being a captain of a sports team: on the playing field there are a range of backgrounds, skill sets, and abilities that you have to learn to speak to and balance. This helped me leverage stakeholders in appropriate ways.
Being a successful leader means communicating and positioning in a way that maximizes the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, needs, and priorities—whether I’m at Nike or on the rugby field.