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Leadership lessons learned from sports

During a recent panel discussion conducted by the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, Philadelphia Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie noted that character and on the field leadership qualities count for more than raw athleticism in putting together the Eagle’s roster. The team will certainly contact a young prospect’s college coach, but they are just as likely to talk to the guidance counselor at the high school to see how he treated other people in his life.

Robert Castellini, CEO of the Cincinnati Reds, agrees with Lurie and describes a similar model for constructing a sports team: start with a foundation of players with personal character and a winning attitude, then hire coaches with the right kind of motivational skills and intelligence to get the most out of them. The head coach is the catalyst who makes the team perform well on the field.

While the importance of talent cannot be overlooked, nurturing two or three key players as clubhouse leaders and role models helps to manage 25 individualistic people. Many of the panelists felt issues that arise in professional sports are transferable to the business world.

Successful athletes have the ability to move on after a losing day on the field. A competitive nature is important as well as being able to make decisions and lead appropriately. Finding a balance between the need to make a profit and the need to put a winning team on the field arises both in sports and business. Recognizing that short term moves might prove counterproductive in the long run and being able to resist the pressure and scrutiny is a mark of strong leadership.

While accountability on the playing field was deemed important, it’s interesting to note that Castellini found that there was less accountability than expected in the front office. He noted that when he arrived at the Red’s organization several years ago, the team was 29th out of 30 in developing players through its farm system and that no one was deemed responsible for that failure.