Our inclusion in Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on leadership Lessons from Sports got me thinking about the skills and experiences from sport that have really helped me in business and those that, frankly, have been more of a hindrance!
Being self-centred has no place in leadership
As an athlete I can see now how self-centred I was. I was the performer and everything was geared towards my medal ambitions. It didn’t take me very long to learn that this type of relentless self-orientation is no use at all in leadership. Leadership is about other people and getting the best out of them. In my former career, me being the best I could be was my sole focus whereas today I wouldn’t want to win something without a team. Of course, being focussed, which I guess could be seen as a component of being self- centred has been hugely transferable. I can still compartmentalise things pretty well, able to focus in the moment and put other interferences and pressures to one side.
High standards have a shadow side
Having high standards is a double-edged sword. The perfectionist tendency that I had as a swimmer, where the smallest of margins made a huge difference has less relevance for me in business. Of course, I aspire to high standards for me and my team and we work with our clients to help them achieve high standards through their people. BUT, perfectionist tendencies are often relentless and unforgiving. That’s a trait that, while part and parcel of elite sport, is something I’ve tried actively to move away from as a leader.
You don’t have to be an expert to help others excel
I lead a Board of people who know more about their fields than I do. In fact, I make it my business to hire people who know a lot more than I do. As a swimmer, I had an outstanding coach but he himself could not swim very well at all. That didn’t stop him from leading me to an Olympic Gold Medal. He understood how I operated, my strengths and weaknesses and asked great questions to enable me to come up with the answers for myself.
Being able to set goals effectively has been one of the most important transferable skills. Taking a hard, long-term vision and breaking it down into outcome goals, specific performance goals and day to day process goals has served me well in both of my careers. At Lane4 we adopt a four-year planning cycle and set business goals no differently to the way I set goals as an Olympic performer.
Last and by no means least (in fact, it is likely to be the most important skill I have benefited from) is resilience. All of us, no matter how successful in our field, will face adversity at some point in our career. At Lane4 we define resilience as the ability to not only survive, but thrive under pressure (read our whitepaper on resilience). For me there are two ways that resilience comes in to play. Firstly, being able to be resilient in a given moment, like in a difficult meeting or in a pitch scenario and secondly the ability to be resilient over a longer period of time which is crucial in high pressured roles. Knowing the trigger signs when pressure is turning to stress and being able to regulate myself is something incredibly important and, fortunately, something I learnt well as a sports person having worked with fantastic performance psychologists.