Small Business Leadership Lessons from the World of Sports

by Benjamin Gran

The world of sports provides a great deal of inspiration for small-business leaders  —  whether it's in terms of management style, talent acquisition strategies, the ability to create a cohesive team culture or the overall drive to succeed in a highly competitive environment. Indeed, small-business owners and entrepreneurs who need inspiration would do well to look to recent success stories in the areas of football, basketball, soccer and baseball.

Let's take a look at four leaders to get inspired by:

Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Jürgen Klinsmann, U.S. Soccer Men's National Team
Bob Nutting, Pittsburgh Pirates

Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks

Pete Carroll is the head coach of the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. His coaching style is unique in an environment in which coaches are often known for an authoritarian, tough-guy style. There are several lessons that business leaders can take away from Pete Carroll's success in America's most competitive, high-profile pro sports league.

For example, the Seahawks gave the starting quarterback job to Russell Wilson, even though he was widely considered to be "too short" to play quarterback and was drafted late in the second round of the NFL draft. Just as Seattle chose to go with a new guy who showed a lot of promise but didn’t entirely “look” the part, you should look beyond the "usual suspects" when giving promotions and identifying promising leaders. The people who will make the biggest difference in helping grow your business might come from non-traditional backgrounds or have a set of skills you hadn't considered. Don’t overlook people just because they aren't like candidates you’ve hired in the past.

Also consider that while the typical NFL coach’s leadership style tends to be very hierarchical, with lots of yelling and a gruff manner, Carroll doesn’t fit this tough-guy mold. Instead, he has his players do yoga, and he is known as a player's coach who treats his players with a great deal of respect and an open-minded attitude of listening. (These are just some of the reasons why Carroll was voted the most popular coach in the NFL.) In the same way, businesses should consider moving away from a traditional, top-down command-and-control style of management and embrace a flatter organizational structure  —  without yelling.

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

Gregg Popovich, who has four NBA championships as coach of the San Antonio Spurs, is considered one of the smartest coaches in the league. While many basketball coaches are known for their highly controlling, perfectionistic styles of leadership  —  and are prone to throwing tantrums on the sideline when players don’t execute their visions for the game  —  Popovich takes a more laid-back approach.

In a recent interview, Popovich described his style of coaching as hands-off. During timeouts, Popovich will often tell his players, “I’ve got nothing for you.... Figure it out.” Instead of trying to micromanage every play and every step his players take on the court, Popovich empowers his players to make the right decisions and act like "coaches on the court."

Do you trust your people to make the right decisions? Are you giving your team enough space to communicate with each other and with you? Often the team works best when managers give people enough freedom to feel like they’re in charge of themselves.

Jürgen Klinsmann, U.S. Soccer Men's National Team

Jürgen Klinsmann is a German soccer coach who was brought to the United States and  hired to make a transformative difference in American soccer. Since he was hired in 2011, Klinsmann has totally reshaped the playing style of Team USA  —  putting the team in perhaps its strongest position yet in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Klinsmann's style of managing is based on getting the entire organization to rethink its style and purpose  —  trying new strategies, evaluating talent with an open mind and giving new players a chance to shine. Klinsmann is also receiving praise for bringing some of the best ideas to the United States from Europe by "cross pollinating" the latest international soccer philosophies and applying them to the U.S. national team.

Whether you’re managing a new team for the first time, or just looking to reinvigorate the performance of your existing team of employees, you might find inspiration in Klinsmann’s example of open-mindedness. Introduce new ideas about ways to be productive and collaborate, and challenge your team members to reinvent their understanding of their roles and sense of mission.

Bob Nutting, Pittsburgh Pirates

Bob Nutting is the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which until recently was one of Major League Baseball’s worst-performing teams (with 20 consecutive losing seasons). Since he became principal owner in 2007, however, Nutting and his staff have engineered a remarkable turnaround: The Pirates had a winning season in 2013 (going 94-68), qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in 21 years and winning the National League Wild Card Game against Cincinnati.

Bob Nutting has based his strategy on developing homegrown talent and taking a long-term approach. He’s worked to help the Pirates get better at identifying prospects through the draft and building a stronger organization at all levels  —  whether that means traveling to the Dominican Republic to make decisions about investing in new training facilities or hiring the right people for the right jobs. The Pirates are not a major market team like the Red Sox or Yankees, but they’re not afraid to spend money on the right talent  —  like MVP Andrew McCutcheon, who recently signed a $66-million deal that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2018.

What can small-business owners learn from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ recent success under Nutting? Take a long-term approach, know your identity, play to your strengths and look to find underutilized/undervalued talent. Even if you can’t afford to pay people as much or invest at the same levels as bigger companies in your industry, look for ways to make people’s jobs better and create a cohesive team culture  —  one in which people feel respected and can see how they are making a difference every day.

Key Takeaways

Sports and business have many similarities: The former measures performance mainly by wins and losses, while the latter uses profits and losses as its major benchmark. However, in both sports and business, organizations are competing against other teams while also competing against themselves to be the best organizations they can be. And in both sports and business, leadership plays a huge role in performance of the whole organization. Some of the most exciting success stories in sports can be attributed in large part to new styles of leadership  —  being open to new ideas, embracing new ways of evaluating talent and creating a stronger concept of team. Each of these philosophies can be applied in the business world, as well, helping to make your organization a champion in its field.

About This Author

Benjamin Gran is a full-time freelance writer specializing in blog articles, white papers, technical writing, speech writing and other business writing.


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