As the 2012 London Olympics goes into its final weekend, I feel compelled to write about sports and leadership. For the past few weeks it seems like all we’ve heard from the news media are analogies between sports and business. These are stories about perseverance, commitment, being single focused, working hard, and, of course, a desire to win. All admirable traits but it’s very different having these traits as an athlete and having them as a leader in an organization.  

We do love our sports, whether player or spectator. Billions of people around the world watch the MP900442882 Olympics every four years. They express exaltation in winning and pain in loss. The usual explanation for this enthursiasm is loyalty to team and country, as well as admiration for the athletes. I think it’s more than that.

Sports give us the respect, control, and membership that we don’t get from our work organizations and life in general. With sports the rules are simple, the goals are clear, what we have to do to reach those goals is known to all, feedback is immediate, and there is a beginning and an end to the competition. With sports we feel a sense of belonging (membership) to something bigger than ourselves, win or lose. How else can you explain Chicago Cubs fans?

Our work lives are chaotic, unpredictable, and filled with disappointments. We know that we have little influence over many aspects of what happens to us day to day. We have no simple way of keeping score or knowing how well we’re doing. Feedback on our performance is rare. There is no beginning, middle, and end, it just keeps going.

As human beings, we need more than this. We need respect, control, and membership. Those qualities are not readily available in our organizations, so we turn to playing and participating in sports. We play and watch sports, not because they are analogous to our organizational lives, but because they are so different.  

David Waltz alerts us to this false analogy. He cites five ways in which the Olympics (and sports in general) do not teach us about business. He writes:

  1. In business, winners and losers are not easy to determine.
  2. In business, more than one person or team or organization can win.
  3. In business, not every “player” is the best at what they do.
  4. In business, the work never ends; there is no time to stop, rest, and rejuvenate.
  5. In business, there are no permanent successes (Gold Medal); success is fleeting and “champions” can become has-beens overnight.

I love sports. I love competing and I enjoy watching my favorite sports. But I don’t think I learn much about leading an organization from this pastime. That’s okay. What I get instead is an experience that I can’t get from my business or my work consulting in organizations. I get a feeling of respect (from others and from self), a sense of control over events (real or imagined), and a belief that I belong to something bigger than myself (real or imagined).