Leadership in high performance sports and business

Jordi Coma

In the management and development of high-performance leadership there are many similarities between the worlds of business and team sports.

Vision, mission, and values in both business and sport become objectives (result-performance and process) that lead to a specific and adaptive action plan reflecting the characteristics of the situation.

In both sports and business, we seek maximum efficiency to continue evolving and maintain our competitive levels. If the level falls, the competition (other teams or companies) will often overtake us. The leadership of the top manager and his team (technical staff or management board) are crucial in the development of the project.

One of the best known and most widely used approaches in sport-specific leadership research is Chelladurai's Multidimensional Model (Chelladurai, 1978; Chelladurai, 1984a; Chelladurai and Saleh, 1980a).


Antecedents and behavior

This model features two differentiated and interconnected blocks: antecedents and behavior.

Antecedents include situational characteristics (such as history of the team-club, existing norms, organizational climate, values, and size); and leader characteristics (such as intelligence, knowledge, discipline, age, experience, charisma, and empathy); and player characteristics (such as sporting level, age, gender, maturity level, and competitive experience). These characteristics influence the behavior of the leader and the perceptions of the players.

It is important to highlight the idea of required behavior (what is expected and demanded by the situation) by both the coach and players. This is where the skills needed by each to reach the level required are specified and analyzed. For example, in most competitive situations there are several highly demanded required behaviors for professional players of any sport (such as attention in the areas of rest, nutrition, weight, acceleration, jumping ability, strength levels, technical quality, tactical intelligence, tolerance and performance under pressure, and management of success and failure). The higher the level and demands of the category (or company), the higher the level of behavior required from coach and players.

In parallel, there is a preferred behavior (for player and coach) which is often unaligned with required behavior. In these cases, a window of incoherence needs managing. For example, some of the rules imposed by the new coach Xavi Hernandez at FC Barcelona aim to implement behavior (required behavior) to enhance the performance of the players and team. This is certainly not the preferred behavior of the players, nor Xavi's preferred behavior. Even so, the level of performance needed (optimal demand) requires this type of behavior: control and supervision of eating habits (breakfast, lunch); control and monitoring of training loads (such as post-exertion recovery); and individualized treatment.

One of the roles of the coach and coaching staff is to achieve the greatest possible coherence in actual behavior by managing preferred behavior and required behavior.

Parallels in the business world

This vision and interpretation has many parallels and similarities in the business world. Understanding the individuals on the team is a key aspect of the configuration of work teams in high performance sports and business. We need to objectively assess the skills of team members to be consistent in what we require from them. This applies to the members of the team and possible new additions (assistants and players). To align ourselves and minimize setbacks, we must quickly and clearly explain our expectations, beliefs, roles, individual and team objectives, as well as our method of working.

Making decisions is a critical behavior needed from the coach (or company manager). Attention must be paid to decisions not taken for emotional reactions (‘I like this player very much, he is a friend of mine, and for this reason he is going to stay in the team’). It is also necessary to assess abilities and make decisions based on criteria.

Results are decisive in top-level sporting or business environments

(Maxwell, 2008) refers to the concept of reliability, which is the idea that we trust (or not) somebody because of their character and abilities. For example, a player in the second division with whom the coach has a particularly good relationship, may find that the coach drops him from the team after winning promotion to the first division. This decision is made not because of the player’s character but because of his or her abilities. Obviously, the best arrangement would be to have players who we like for their character and abilities, but it often does not happen that way in real life. The coach (or manager) will again have to choose the priorities according to the situation and contextual reality.

At the highest sports or business level, the leader must get most decisions right (Tichy and Bennis, 2010). If this does not happen, then the system will throw out the leader.

Finally, we must point out that results are decisive in top-level sporting or business environments. It is a matter of working as well as possible with the tools and possibilities available, while always looking for the best version of all the participants and the team. The process, and the ‘how, when, and why’ we do things, helps achieve the objectives and reveals the credibility and influence of the team leader.

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