Sports Lessons for Business Leaders (or Not)

Kenneth Shropshire harkened back to his days working on Peter Ueberroth staff’s for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles to illustrate the similarities between sports and business leadership. As Shropshire recalled, Ueberroth, a former water polo player and businessman, would call his staff on the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee into his office, name a task, and say, “Make it happen.” No micromanagement. Just trust in his subordinates’ talents and initiative.

That is a leadership lesson that translates well into today’s business world.

Since his time as an executive on the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee, Shropshire, the David W. Hauck Professor and director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, has made a career of finding such parallels. However, he also knows when sports and business do not necessarily mix.

Preparation and accountability aren’t equivalent in sports and business, for instance. In sports, individuals and teams practice together regularly and repetitively, Shropshire said. So when it comes to game time, players have no excuse when they do not execute. Through coaching and practice, it is also easier for sports leaders to mold players to a given role or team character.

This isn’t true in business. Shropshire described negotiation courses he has taught for the Wharton MBA for Executives program, during which he has students practice negotiations and prepare for business meetings. Students have commented that the practice was a first in their careers.

Prof. Kenneth Shropshire

Another difference: though in sports and business it is important to get the right people “on the bus,” Shropshire said, it is perhaps more difficult to do so in business. Identifying top performers can be a challenge, unlike in sports where prospects can be measured by a 40-yard dash or how many goals they scored in their college career.

Shropshire was discussing the pros and cons of business leaders learning from the lessons of sports at the 2012 Global Leadership Summit, sponsored by the London Business School on May 21. He was joined on a discussion panel by Sean Fitzpatrick, founder, Front Row Leadership, and former captain of the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Team; Ralph Kruegar, associate coach, Edmonton Oilers; and Niels de Vos, CEO, UK Athletics.

Editor’s note: Wharton Magazine will speak in greater detail with Prof. Shropshire about his Olympic experiences in our Summer 2012 issue. Stay tuned!

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