Can you compare business to sport? Setting aside the fact that big sport is normally just big business, I think you can.
Your business is, at heart, a group of people pulling together as a team and, as with a team, you want them to have different but complementary qualities. So what sports qualify?
Well, you don’t really want to employ a team of overpaid prima donnas, so football doesn’t count; perhaps rugby can provide a better comparison.
Rugby has the reputation as a hard but fair sport and as we now focus on the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, can it teach leaders anything about good business?
A business can have lots in common with any team sport — sports metaphors pervade business jargon, but perhaps rugby has unique characteristics that set it above the pack when it comes to furnishing leaders with business lessons.
Respect the rules
Rugby is often described as “a thug’s game played by gentlemen”, wheres football is “a gentleman’s game played by thugs”.
There is one way in rugby that players can claim they are the most disciplined in comparison with other sports, it’s in their constant respect for the referee. Seeing an awk on steroids brought to mumbling contrition by a shorter, smaller man with a whistle can be inspiring.
The respect for its rules and administrators, no matter how much players might disagree with a particular ruling, is one of the key ways in which it can distinguish itself from other, more confrontational sports.
Lots of organisations like to think of themselves as rule breakers, or have fostered organisational horizontalism, where traditional relationships between boss and worker are broken down. But respect for lines of command and rules and regulations are also needed.
Understanding when and how to be polite, or how to not lose your head over perceived slights, can be just as important a lesson as learning when to strike out on your own. And while compliance with the rules may sometimes be a burden, with the right attitude, it can be a driver of creative new ideas.
Rugby and American football are sporting relatives. They share a common ancestor, they emphasise carrying the ball forward in hands and kicking for goal, and both are full-on contact sports.
Whereas American football is violence punctuated by committee meetings, with the clock being stopped after every play for players to regroup and discuss tactics, in rugby, the clock only stops for injuries, or when the referee needs to consult the Television Match Official (TMO).
When a business hits a crisis, such as a major cyber-breach, there is no time for play to stop, medics to rush on and bottles of water to be dispensed to exhausted executives. Leadership means responding to crises as and when they happen, whether or not that allows time for everyone to compose themselves.
The best rugby players aren’t necessarily the fastest, strongest or the most agile players, but often the ones who can understand the layout of the field in the moment, coordinate efforts across the team accordingly and make tough decisions under pressure.
A good business leader needs to be like a good scrum-half, the player who orchestrates the speedy backs and forward pack, and whose immediate decisions dominate play tactics. They need to understand the strengths of all the players on the field and bind together diverse functions in one reactive, organic whole.
But play can change quickly and rugby demands snap decisions from every player on the pitch. Do you offload or take the ball into the tackle? Do you commit to the ruck or make yourself available for the next play? Take a penalty or play on through advantage? Every second requires balancing options and picking the best outcome from every player.
Some sports rely heavily on the physical talents of individual players. In rugby, snap decisions can change everything for the whole team. Versatile, resilient organisations demand the same.
Unlike some sports, rugby is not a game of rapid back-and-forth — it is more like a war of attrition where every yard of ground gained towards the try line has to be earned through hard work.
That doesn’t mean swift change can’t happen. A gap in enemy defences, a mistimed tackle or an unpredictable ball bounce can open up massive opportunities. If a team are able to assess the changing state of play quickly, and move with the agility and speed needed to take advantage of the break, this can turn a game entirely. With seven points for a converted try, even a significant lag can become a tight race within minutes.
Growing a business can be the same — a lot of punishment early on, for seemingly little gain. Only by gritting your teeth and getting stuck in can you make meaningful progress — but you also need to be ready to move fast when opportunity presents itself. Businesses that can be the first to see a shifting marketplace or identify a gap, and move with speed are often the ones that succeed.
Team playing, rugby style
Another telling point of comparison with American football, with important business implications, is the degree of player specialisation in each game.
American football breeds a certain type of player — its big players are very big, and its fast players are very fast. Due to its stop-start nature, players can be swapped between plays to allow those with specific individual talents to be brought on to help with a particular tactic.
In rugby, however, where players have more freedom to move around the pitch, replacements are more limited and injuries common, and everyone on the team needs to be good at many things. While few of the big players are as big, or the fast players as fast, backs should be able to ruck, maul and tackle powerfully like forwards and forwards should be able to run with the ball like backs.
Every team, and every organisation, needs its specialists, its talents who can do what they can do better than others. But functions don’t exist on their own. The very best team players, whether on the pitch or in the office, need to be able to understand an entire context and have the skills and know-how to step in where needed.
The importance of diversity
Any leader worth his or her salt knows how important diversity is in building a dynamic team. The British & Irish Lions, who bring together the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales once every four years, and who, this year, will be taking on the three-time world champions in New Zealand in June and July — are a great example of diverse skills in action.
By taking the best players from nations who only weeks before were competing against each other, the best Lions coaches — like the best business leaders — can build teams who combine the strengths of some of the best players in the world.