Is sport such a poor metaphor for management? 

Is sport such a poor metaphor for management? 

Sports_pexelsThese days, when I sit down to write a blog post, there are two somewhat surprising threads running simultaneously through my mind. Why am I surprised by the topics holding my attention these days? Quite simply, and as I have written before, it would have been difficult to predict one year ago that  politics and sports would be themes for my blog posts.

However, political events continue in my thoughts because I am still looking back at the intriguing question of the role of personal narrative in the last US presidential election. We will certainly return to the topic of Hillary Clinton and why her electoral failure, from my perspective, stemmed largely from her inability to tell her story, to speak from the heart about who she is and what she stands for. Also, some readers have been asking if I saw any type of personal narrative in Trump’s campaign, which is perhaps another question worthy of exploration.

Today, though, I take a look back at a topic I mentioned on February 10, in a post entitled “Can sports teach us anything worthwhile about business?”

I was inspired to address this question when I read an article by Bill Taylor in the February 3 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In “Why Sports Are a Terrible Metaphor for Business”, Taylor warns us against the temptation to look for business lessons on the fields where professional athletes exercise their craft. As he puts it: “Sports, it turns out, are a terrible metaphor for business, and leaders who look to the gridiron or the soccer pitch for ideas about their work will be sorely disappointed.”

As the author sees it, notions of competition, strategy and value creation are so divergent in the two domains that one is of limited relevance to the other. For example, sports are a zero-sum competition (for my team to win, yours must lose), while most industries have room for a number of different winners in the same marketplace. Taylor goes on to state that business managers can learn little about talent management and teamwork from a sport such as American football, where an average player career lasts about three years. As such, building an organization for the long term, something great companies strive to do, is a concept that simply does not apply.

Mr Taylor is a cofounder of Fast Company magazine, one of the publications I have read and learned much from, virtually every month since it was launched in the mid 1990s. That said, and despite all the respect I have both for Taylor and his work, to me his HBR article misses the mark.

Of course, some of the author’s assertions are unarguably true. Differences in the notions of competition, teamwork, and value creation in the two realms make sports an imperfect metaphor for business. At the same time, I would argue that athletic activities do indeed provide useful analogies for the business world, particularly in the domain of people management. In fact, the various sports teams I have worked with or studied in my research have brought forth a number of useful lessons, stories, and concepts that I have often used in my consulting and teaching.

There is one aspect of Mr Taylor’s reasoning that I take particular issue with. He states that business people have little to learn from American football coaches, due to the short-term, disposable mindset that defines life in the National Football League. As Taylor writes, “Most football teams, to be brutally honest, are a collection of mercenaries ruled by a tyrant. That’s not how great business organizations work.”

I would argue that the secret of the great sports teams is precisely that they build something unique and special, a group culture that takes everyone in the story far beyond the dynamic of mercenaries and tyrants. Such was the case of the outstanding Manchester United teams under Sir Alex Ferguson, the Chicago Bulls of the Phil Jackson era, and the New England Patriots today.

While sports is admittedly an imperfect metaphor for business, it remains nonetheless an instructive one in the realms of group culture and people management. All of us who work to achieve extraordinary group performance can learn a great deal from highly successful sports teams. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a close look at some enlightening examples.

Image: Pexels photographer Scott Webb