I first became aware of good leadership qualities from sport. And in my experience, there are some leadership traits that are more widely accepted in sport than in working environments. But can they still be effective in business teams? A lot of successful coaches/managers/captains instinctively and explicitly, defend their athletes. I’ve also noticed they have an artful ability of demanding more whilst releasing pressure at the same time.
The instinct to defend
This isn’t the same as a popularity contest where David Brent is campaigning to be liked. In fact, I’ve noticed even some disagreeable leaders with a more autocratic leadership style, still defend their team very naturally. Even if they’re not always liked, teams that trust their leader to defend them (consciously or not) seem to give more of themselves to the cause.
Below is a transcript from when Sir Alex Ferguson challenged the media for criticising his younger players. (Not too dissimilar to the criticism being reported recently following England’s defeat to Italy in the Euro 2021 final).
"It will be the same players who played on Wednesday, despite the criticism they got," Ferguson said. "You [the media] wrote that there's no future for these players, there's no tomorrow for them.' I couldn't believe that... It's unbelievable... Of course they will grow from that experience. I was confident playing them, they had every right to be played and they will play on Tuesday, too.”
Ferguson would go as far as Identifying individual journalists who he felt were attacking his players inappropriately.
And when addressing the infamous split with Roy Keane, Ferguson said his decision was based on Roy’s attacking the team.
By taking on outside threats, the team’s challenges are focused whilst a deeper trust develops with the person leading. There’s often a healthy friction in teams with more trust. The leader, who has proven they will back the team, won’t hesitate to raise the bar because they’re trusted to set it. Even with higher standards and more pressure, the team effort is stronger because when people we trust, believe we can achieve more than we thought we could, we grow.
Increasing & releasing pressure to avoid burnout
Inspiring teams to go further than they initially thought they could, comes with increased pressure as the expectations and standards are not at a comfortable level. Being able to increase and release pressure simultaneously balances people so they can perform at the edge of grip without loosing control. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is an example of this but if our target is on the line and we’re trying to close our biggest deal of the FY when it starts to slip, we might need a more immediate fix without avoiding the challenge.
An example of this can be seen right before the penalty shootout during the quarter final (Euros 2016). Portugals captain, Ronaldo, stops his teammate, Moutinho, from backing out of taking a penalty. “Hey! Hey! Come kick… you hit them well… if we loose then f* it”.