Sports Lessons for Leaders

When I’m asked if leadership skills can be learned, my answer is a quick “Of course!”

I was deluded enough to think that I could somehow take at least one of my sporting endeavors (I played two sports in college, not initially realizing just how marginal an athlete I was) to the professional level.

Turns out I did—from a leadership perspective. I learned things on the fields and courts of my childhood that I use every day in business. And I’m not the only one. Brian Raison, a member of Ohio State’s faculty and new friend, teaches on leadership and strategic planning—sometimes from inside the Horseshoe!

You can learn from not only Brian’s lecture, but your own sports experiences, too. Here are four lessons I learned along the way:

  • Don’t Quit
  • Stay in the Moment
  • Have (and Stick with) a Plan
  • Do What We Do

Let’s take a brief look at each in turn.

  1. Don’t Quit

My freshman year at Duke we lost nineteen baseball games in a row. No, nineTEEN! Almost impossible to do, but we were able to rise to the…I mean, lower ourselves beneath the challenge. One Sunday afternoon we were playing fifth-ranked Georgia Tech, and they were well on their way to making it twenty consecutive losses. We trailed by nine runs in the ninth inning and they’d brought in their All-American closer to finish the game (a pitcher, for those of you not into baseball). Not promising.

The next morning, a friend in Atlanta mailed me a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where my picture had made the front page. Well, it was a group shot of us mobbing our player who scored the tenth and final run for us to win, but you can clearly see me. Fairly clearly.

The final nine runs came with two outs. Somehow, we’d won.

Even when you’ve lost nineteen straight, don’t give up. Keep pushing.

Don’t quit.


  1. Stay in the Moment

I joined the front office of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in early 2001, the same week that Mike Tomlin was hired by the Bucs from the University of Cincinnati. Mike’s energy was contagious, and it was clear that his quick mind and vast wisdom would take him far in coaching.

I remember him saying, “Be Where You Are,” a phrase that many of us have heard before, but where he took it resonated with me.

“You’re looking ahead to next Sunday’s game, and that’s great,” he said. “We need to plan. We need to prepare. We need to think long-range. And you’re also thinking back to last Sunday’s game. Things you did well. Mistakes you made. And that’s good, too, to learn from the past.

“But the only place you actually are is here. Now. You can’t change anything from last Sunday. And you can’t impact next Sunday—except by what you do today, right now, with the moment you’ve got.”

We can dream and we can lament or savor, but at some point, we also have to act.

I think Mike’s results—including a Super Bowl ring as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers—speak for themselves.


  1. Have (and Stick with) a Plan

When I arrived in Tampa Bay, our General Manager, Rich McKay, told me, “The one thing we do well is to develop and maintain our plan. We have an identity and we stick with it. We may never be the best in the National Football League, but we’ll be better than the teams that continually churn through coaches, systems, and philosophies. And just maybe one day we will be the best.”

At Duke, Coach Steve Spurrier was my head football coach. He would preach over and over that trying to play extra hard or being really fired up for a game on Saturday wouldn’t help nearly as much (and maybe at all) as preparing with a solid day’s work every practice, all week. It wasn’t flashy. Just consistent. For him, that was our plan.

Similarly, when the Indianapolis Colts reached the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, the schedule provided for an extra week before the Super Bowl. Tony Dungy, the Colts’ head coach, promptly gave the players and coaches most of the extra week off. When asked why, Tony replied that he knew what it took to win football games, and that over the duration of the 2006 season, the Colts had put in a single, solid week for every opponent. That was their plan. That’s what it took. He didn’t want to communicate any other message to the players other than: We have a plan. It works. We know how to win. Stick with the plan. Just a single, solid week.

And they did, beating the Chicago Bears, 29-17.


  1. Do What We Do

We lost four of our first seven games the season when Mike Tomlin and I joined the Buccaneers. People were concerned about possible firings. Could we right the ship, so to speak?

There was tremendous pressure on our head coach, Tony Dungy. After that seventh week when we stood at 3-4 and our playoff prospects looked bleak he reinforced that we were simply going to Do What We Do. We had an identity, and we were going to stick with it.

It’s a point related to the one above, but to me, one that looks even beyond winning or profits. Who we are as an organization is bigger. What do we stand for? Why does it matter?

And so we stuck with our identity on the field, and off as well. We didn’t claim players off waivers who may have been talented but potentially toxic either in the locker room or in the community. We knew our values. We stuck with our schemes. And our players.

Tommy Amaker, a friend, fellow Duke athlete (but a really good one!) and now the basketball coach at Harvard, said, “You can change tactics without changing your principles.”

Powerful. There are times when in sports and business we might have to adjust our sails to catch the wind. Or create some. But don’t change who you are and what you believe.

Lead your team with integrity. Treat your customers and vendors well. Whatever it may be in your particular case.

Do What We Do. Be Who We Are.


 There are other leadership lessons to come from the sporting fields to be sure. I’d love to hear yours below in the Comments or via Twitter @nathanwhitaker.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.