17 Business Lessons from Sport

Having made the decision to take a bit of time out after a hectic year or two, I took the time to watch a lot of sport. This included a number of cricket games, and a few reruns of rugby and soccer games as well. Watching them, I started thinking about the strong correlation between business and sport. Being who I am, I started writing up typical business lessons that I could think of given the world of sport.

Lesson 1: Self-Management.  In golf, you manage yourself during the play.  You plan for your game, and play your plan.  You manage yourself to adapt to the changing conditions, as you play.  Nobody tells you what to do – as a matter of fact, nobody is allowed to. You need to take the initiative to decide upon the club you will be using, whether you will be drawing or fading the ball. You do not manage your career – you manage yourself. One shot at a time, one day at a time!  You need to live and work in the now! The now of today and not the now of tomorrow.  The now of literally this moment! In business you also need to manage yourself.  You need to have the self-discipline to do what is required.  You need to be innovative and creative.  You need to “think outside the box.”

Lesson 2: Fitness is absolute. You need to be fit before you can start thinking of doing well in any sport. It’s a given.  So is talent.  Coaches need to work with the head and the heart. Similarly managers need to grow and develop their competencies.  They need to take responsibility for ensuring that they have the competencies required for their job. They need to ensure that they remain “on top of their game.”

Lesson 3: Discipline is crucial.  Doing what is required when you do not feel like it! Exercising and practicing when others sit around doing nothing, or having a beer. Doing what needs to be done to keep the business up and running, of applying working capital policies when the temptations to be lenient are in your face. We need to have the discipline to persevere when the going gets tough, to put in the hours, and to stick to the recipe.

Lesson 4: Apply the principle of holism. The whole is bigger than the sum of the parts.  Team sports – soccer, rugby, football (American), cricket, all require synergy.  A team where you have the best 11 or 15 players does not necessarily mean you have the strongest team. Beware of Albrecht’s Law. Karl Albrecht stated that grouping a number of intelligent people together leads to collective stupidity. A team is about a group of people who together perform better than the sum of the collective parts.

Lesson 5: Leadership is crucial. All team sports require leadership. John Smith was not the best hooker – but was needed for his captaincy. Businesses require leadership as well to be successful! The role of the leader is to get everyone to do his or her bit in order for the business to be successful. The leader is not necessarily the most intelligent in the group. But he or she needs to be the best leader!

Lesson 6: Coaching and mentoring. Gary Kirsten was the cricket coach of the Indian team.  How do you want to tell the best cricket player in the world, Sachin Tendulkar, how to bat? You need to create an environment where they believe in themselves.  You need to be a psychologist as well. This requires you to be a coach and mentor, where you unlock the EQ and SQ of the players.  Leaders need to do this within organizations as well in order to develop high performing teams.

Lesson 7: We all have our role to play. In sport, if there are too many cooks, the meal is a flop.  There can only be one captain. There can only be one fly-half, one scrum half, one full-back, etc. We need to play in our position in order for the team to be successful.  In the prop is running around on the wing, sooner or later there will be a problem. In business the same is true. We all cannot be the MD or CEO. We all cannot be the marketing director, the finance director. We need to play our role to the best of our abilities in order for our organization to be successful, irrespective of our insignificant your role might appear. Pick ‘n Pay, Woolworths, Checkers, etc., cannot be successful if the trolley gatherers do not do their part!

Lesson 8: Community oriented. Collins and Porras talk about clock building where the focus is on the organization, the team, the community you find yourself in. You need to put the team first! In business, you need to put the company first.  You cannot afford to be selfish – you need to be selfless – to take one for the team, as they say. This is where the principle of Level 5 leaders comes in.

Lesson 9: We need to be precise and accurate. In all sports, such as rugby, golf, cricket etc., this is an important principle. When you think of goal kicking, putting, positioning on the fairway, playing a shot on the cricket field or bowling to the batsmen, accuracy is crucial. In business, this principle is equally important.  You need to be accurate with the data you have obtained, and the interpretation thereof. Your financial calculations need to be realistic and accurate.  Faulty calculations can lead to losses and failure! Inaccurate assumptions about the needs of the customer will lead to massive failures.

Lesson 10: Positioning is crucial.  You need to position yourself on the short-term in order to be well placed in the long-term. In golf, you need to know where you need to be in order to have the best position for the next shot. In business, you need to know what objectives you need to achieve on the short and medium term in order to be successful on the long-term.

Lesson 11: Play the cards you have, not the ones you would have wanted.  In sport we need to accept the weather, the course, the referee, etc. We need to make peace with the circumstances we are presented with, and play the game given these circumstances. We would love to have a dry field with no wind, if we have a strong running team. The same goes for business. We would all want a product that everyone is desirous of buying. We would all want highly profitable industries. We would all want the absence of competition. We would all want highly competent and qualified employees. However, we are not necessarily going to get all of this. Deal with what you have when you have to play now. However, develop your strategies to have what you would need in future. Failure to do so, will lead to a strategy-capabilities mismatch at some point of time in the future.

Lesson 12: Synchronize, synergise, and manoeuvre.  In sport, we need to set the competition up for failure. We need to be able to see what is going to happen and how the game will unfold. We need to be tactically intelligent, as well as strategically relevant.  In business this is equally relevant. Checkers saw the need to grow and develop markets outside of South Africa, and set itself up to do just that.  They have done so quite successfully be moving in a meaningful way into Africa, when their competitors either did not see the need, or did not have the competencies to do so. Today Checkers derives a significant portion of its revenue from Africa, at a time when Walmart is moving into South Africa, thereby putting the revenue potential of all the players in South Africa under severe pressure.

Lesson 13: Change the strategy if it does not work.  In sport, we need to change the game plan if the existing plan is not working. We frequently see that a team is struggling until half-time, and then comes back with a vengeance. The difference?  The coach telling them at half-time what to change in order to deal with an unexpected response from the opposing team. In business we need to do the same. There is an old North American Indian saying, “the best strategy when you realize your horse is dead, is to get off and find a new horse.” You cannot stick to a strategy if it clearly is not working. I am not saying that we change our strategies at the drop of a hat, But we need to have the insight to understand when we need to persevere and when we need to change!

Lesson 14: Learn from your mistakes.  Teams nowadays have an analyst that shows them where and why mistakes have been made. The purpose is to learn from your mistakes. In business the same principle applies. The principle or philosophy of the learning organization is built upon the principle of learning from your mistakes. Your people need to have the freedom to act and make mistakes, as long as you and they learn from them. Making mistakes is not a crime – not learning from them is.

Lesson 15: Know your enemy.  In sport, you need to understand who you are playing against, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what their game plan is likely to be. You need to understand and have good knowledge of each of the opposing side’s players, and how they are likely to react to any of your moves. The same goes for their coach. How will they react when they are placed under pressure by your team? In business, the same principle applies.  Competitive analysis is an important part of business. Knowing your competitor and what you can expect from them is crucial for success. Knowing their leaders and their value system is important.

Lesson 16: You need to have a fixed base to operate from. In rugby, having a good “tight five” is crucial.  If your team is unstable and under pressure in the scrum, they will struggle to get the ball, and you cannot play without possession. Your organizational structure in the world of business is how you organize your processes  and how you man the structure. You need to ensure that you have the best people in the crucial positions in your organizations. They will enable the rest of the organization to perform to their optimal levels.  You get this tenet wrong, you will struggle from the word go, and will in all probability fail. Hence the importance of Jim Collins’ mantra: “First who, then what!”

Lesson 17: You need to focus on the essentials.  In golf, you need to shut out the crowd, the wind, everything, and then focus on the ball and the shot you need to play. In rugby, when you are kicking for goal, you need to shut out the crowd, which mostly likely is booing and doing their best to upset you, and focus on kicking the ball, taking into consideration the wind, the angle, etc.  In business, you need to decide on what you want to do, and then do that.  You need to decide what customer group you want to serve, and then serve them. You need to decide what business you want to be in, and be in that business.  You need to understand your positioning in the market, and then strive towards that positioning.  You cannot be everything for everyone! That is a recipe for disaster!

I learnt another lesson, but not from sport. A blind Zen Buddhist monk visited his friend in a nearby village.  Before they knew it, it was dark. His friend gave him a lamp for his return journey. The blind monk said: ” A lamp is not necessary. You do know I am blind and do not need the lamp!”  His friend replied “the lamp is not for you, but for the other travelers so that they might see you in the dark.” The blind monk then started walking home. Unknown to him, his lamp went out. Before long, someone walked into him. As he lay on the ground, he said irritably ” Can’t you watch where you are walking? I have a lamp and still you bumped into me!” The other traveler told him “your lamp is out!”

What’s the lesson? You cannot achieve enlightenment through the light of others.  You need to develop your own light. Otherwise the light will be out, and you will not know it.  Take the above lessons and make them yours.  Add to them. Delete those that seem irrelevant and impractical to you, or just plain wrong.  You need to develop your own worldview. The above lessons reflect some of the world according to Johan. Develop your own worldview lest the lamp has gone out and you do not know it before it is too late.

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1 Response

  1. Trudie Burger says:

    Well said. The reality is that these lessons are not only applicable to the world of business, but also to one’s personal life. As your wife I can see you as an excellent mentor and coach to the kids as well. I am proud that, as I was reading through this article, most of the points are really visible in your life. The International MBA students visiting the USB all tell me you practice what you preach. I am really proud of you.