Leaving athletic leadership models on the field

I try to get out of my bubble as often as I can. Several weeks ago, I attended Manpower’s “Women in Manufacturing” summit in Milwaukee to expand my thinking. I was not disappointed.

One of the panels challenged the traditional view of leadership. That view defines effective leaders as strong, charismatic, and direct people running their organizations in a top-down fashion. The changes we face make it impossible for that view to remain relevant. New demands require perspective and flexibility from engaged teams for organizations to thrive.

Manpower Group’s Michelle Nettles provided an interesting perspective on leadership. She posited that we take our current leadership models from our athletic fields. We define our best leaders by the number of wins they deliver and their relentless focus on that goal. This model leaves little room for ethics and empathy as critical success factors. Recognition and reward systems usually reinforce these definitions.

That view rings true to me and fits with my experience. Traditional leaders during my four decades in business follow the athletic playbook. These leaders focus on wins and use sports metaphors to describe day-to-day situations. Companies favor strong, charismatic personalities for their key positions — the same qualities we love in our favorite athletes. There’s no room for nuance. Of course, traditional bonus and compensation systems reinforce the pursuit of immediate wins above all else.

This approach works when industry rules evolve slowly. Stability over time promotes a way-it’s-always-been-done approach. The organization adjusts to small changes. Learning in this environment is incremental and linear. Winners in this world make small adjustments to create sustainable success.

The approach won’t work in the new world we’re entering. Exponential change requires a more comprehensive and flexible approach to customers and markets. All the while, limited workforce availability places additional stress on companies’ internal structures and processes. Threats can come from anywhere and only an increased level of resilience will make it possible to survive and thrive.

These stressors require a leadership evolution, driven by the ongoing revision of what constitutes a “win.” When survival was the goal and woolly mammoths were the major threat, wins were finding enough food to make it through the day. With survival off the table, kings tried to expand their territories, so they defined wins in terms of territory gained through wars and other means. When war receded and our institutions gained traction, we used athletic contests as the new way to test our mettle. Victory in those contests set the context for success in our companies. Where will the next revision take us? The changes we face will force another evolution in defining wins.

Three ubiquitous trends will shape that answer. First, the body gap and the ongoing worker shortage it causes will push many organizations out of their comfort zones. Companies will engage in new ways, seek leaders with different qualities, and define wins in more complex ways. Second, technology will make disruption easier and cheaper than ever before. Improvements in sensor capability and computing power make many more technologies available to a broader base of organizations. Finally, implementing expanded technology solutions creates more exposure to cyberattacks. These existential threats can come from anywhere and upend operations. These three trends are fundamentally changing our world. We will need more from our leaders. The athletic field leadership approach will no longer work.

Our organizations deal with more complexity and must move much faster than ever before. Technology and big data are changing the game — much like moving from football to women’s volleyball. It’s a new game with new rules that require new capabilities.

Wins are also being redefined much more broadly than profits or power or other athletic-field qualities. Following an athletics-style leadership approach dictates that there will be a winner and a loser — implying scarcity and limited possibilities. Progress in this new world will come from an abundance mindset where we embrace approaches that create win-win solutions. Sure, the new definition will demand financial success, but it will also include leaders’ ability to define a clear and meaningful mission, challenge their organizations to fulfill those missions, and create a level of trust that makes change an ally, rather than a threat. Are you ready?

If you learned your leadership lessons in athletics, your world is changing. Embrace these changes and discover the rewards that come from driving modern organizations with engaged teams in challenging environments.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.