Sports Cliches That Can Actually Inspire Success
Here are six inspiring lessons I learned while playing sports that helped transform my company.
This proposal is a “slam dunk.” That speaker “knocked it out of the park.” “Winning.” There’s a reason sports phrases resonate in the office and inspire us: There are so many parallels!
As a sports nut, I’ve always thought aspiring entrepreneurs can learn much about business by staying glued to ESPN. To that end — true confession! — I’ve never read a business management book. Since I’m often asked, “What’s the secret to being a successful entrepreneur?” I tell folks it’s simple. I lead like I’m managing a pro sports team.
So far it’s worked. In 2002, I borrowed $25,000 from family and friends to launch DMI, which has grown to a $400 million digital transformation and mobility services company with 2,000 employees and 22 global offices.
Here are six lessons I find translate from the ballpark to the boardroom.
1. The team matters above all else
That old adage “there’s no ‘I’ in team” still rules. I played hockey, basketball, football and baseball as a kid. Another confession: my former coaches would be the first to say that I was no MVP! On the contrary, I was the proverbial chubby kid on the team. But what a learning experience! What lesson did I come away with? That the team matters above all else and each player has talent to contribute. I was lucky. My coaches were supportive. Regardless of natural ability or if we won or lost, they reinforced team spirit. It’s a feeling I never forgot and a lesson I took to heart.
At my company, no matter an employee’s role or title, they know they play a unique and critical role in the organization’s success. When we win new business contracts, I congratulate all who contributed to the proposal, from administrators to sales reps to writers to VPs. All did their part to score points with the customer and win the bid. All should share in the glory.
2. There’s no room for jerks, no matter their talent
Titus Young was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. He started 26 games in two years, had 81 receptions for 990 yards and ten touchdowns. But volatility was an issue and he was cut from the team. He signed with the Rams but lasted in St. Louis for ten days. The lesson? No one wants to work with jerks. Similarly, I once employed an all-star senior member of our leadership team who would routinely insult co-workers. Many organizations choose to look the other way with this behavior, especially when it’s exhibited by a high-performer. But in the end, toxic MVPs run the risk of destroying your team from the inside out due to the corrosive effect they have on the performance of their peers. I generally find they’re just more trouble than they’re worth.
3. Cultivate the Mamba Mentality
The Mamba Mentality was one of the late Kobe Bryant’s most enduring legacies and has relevance far beyond the basketball court. The Lakers MVP often referenced the mindset while coaching his daughters, instilling words of wisdom about the value of hard work and perseverance. “A valuable lesson that I can teach them is what it means to pursue excellence and the commitment level that comes with that,” he told People. Bryant wrote that he enjoyed challenging people, as “That’s what leads to introspection and self-improvement. You could say I dared people to be their best selves. Once I understood them, I could help bring the best out of them by touching the right nerve at the right time.” Bryant’s approach to leadership worked for him in basketball and business. Any leader would be wise to take the Mamba mentality to heart.
4. Know when to get out of the way
Team management is indeed a delicate balancing act and it also helps to know when to step out of the way. Consider Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team, which defeated the far more experienced Soviets. With a reputation as a hard-driving disciplinarian, Brooks worked his team notoriously hard. But the coach knew conditioning could be their secret weapon. And when the Americans prevailed, skating to victory and capturing the gold, Brooks stepped out of the way, literally. TV cameras caught the coach exiting the bench to let his players revel in the thrill of victory and shine in the global spotlight.
5. Remember the two bottom lines
Living outside Washington D.C., I admire Ted Leonsis, Chairman and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the Washington Capitals, the Wizards, the Mystics and Capital One Arena. Leonsis abides by the so-called double bottom line. It’s a belief that the most successful companies do more than turn a profit, but also accomplish social good. Whether it’s funding a student mentoring program or reducing your carbon footprint, the double bottom line fosters a shared sense of community. I agree with Ted’s philosophy and also encourage our employees to give back by volunteering to serve lunch to the families of wounded servicemen and women and laying wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery during the holidays. It’s just good business.
6. Stay in the fight!
The Washington Nationals were one of the worst teams in baseball in May 2019 with a 19-31 record. Fast forward to October; they’re World Series champs. What’s the lesson? Stay in the fight! It’s a favorite mantra of the team’s manager, Dave Martinez, and that’s exactly what the Nationals did. Similarly, one segment of our business began last year with some unique challenges. But in the spirit of Martinez and “Stay in the fight,” I reinforced to this team all of the new business still in the pipeline, as well as its stellar record of performance. Sure enough, it’s turning around just like our Nats.
As our team grows globally, I look to sports more than ever, prepared to take hits and viewing setbacks as learning opportunities on the road to victory. Oh, and in the immortal words of The Great Bambino, “It’s hard to beat a person that never gives up!”
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