Leadership – Integrity and Reputation – Sporting Parallels


A more extensive version of this document is available as a PDF for download and discussion:

Leadership, Integrity and Reputation – Sporting Parallels – June 2017

When we go to the cinema, it has already been filmed.

When we go to the theatre, it has been well rehearsed.

When we go to play or watch sport, we do so knowing anything can happen.

Yet despite the thrill of the build up to the occasion and all of the associated anticipation and debate about who might prevail and why, somehow we also desire more than the unpredictability of the outcome when the players commence the contest.

We who love playing, attending and watching sport fill our stadia to see sport played with an attacking rather than overly defensive mindset, preferring to see the team or players we support winning by way of their own skill and teamwork than predominantly just trying to stop the opponents, although when minnows defeat giants this is often the case.

Sport offers the opportunity for underdogs and rank outsiders to defeat the hot favourites, often as a result of closely knit teamwork prevailing over more individualistic prowess.

Those of us fortunate to have played together on league and cup winning teams, whatever the sport, well remember the camaraderie engendered from training, practicing, competing, winning and losing. Indeed perhaps we learn more from losing which can often inspire us to improve and perform better than had we won first time. The bond and friendships forged from combining our various individual talents for the benefit of the team is rarely diminished and perhaps even enhanced with the passing of years.

I can never forget when living in the glorious climate of Perth, Western Australia, playing a tennis final for my club Fremantle in 46 degrees on (very rare) concrete courts, which only served to magnify further the effect of the intense heat! Most “WA” tennis clubs are fortunate to feature predominantly grass courts which suit serve-and-volleyers and those who prefer attack to defence, with typical Summer temperatures of low to mid 30s usually tempered by the cooling effect of the Fremantle Doctor coastal breeze, not unlike outdoor air conditioning! Not that day though, with ice packs and copious fluid and salts intake the order of the day when “playing for your team” took on an entirely new dimension!

I have now swapped the outdoor lifestyle of Western Australia for the more moderate climate of a green country on the Western edge of Europe which also features friendly, outgoing people, spectacular scenery and rugged coastlines – Ireland – another sport loving nation.

There are many parallels between leadership, integrity & reputation in the sporting arena and business, politics, government and many other walks in life.

Some people can be born leaders and natural team players, often with the ability to show a great interest in other people, their interests, desires and needs, while others struggle to see things from the perspective of other people or the group or team, no matter how hard others try to persuade them, even when they are the leaders themselves!

It is easy for a manager to manage the easy people. The challenge of a manager or leader is seldom dealing with such admirable people. The real difficulty for a manager is managing the difficult people.

Anyone who has had such people in a group of any kind knows the real challenge is managing the challenging people.

Talented managers (of people) appreciate that everyone is different, with different personalities and motivations, yet somehow they know how best to manage the various people in the manner that is most likely to inspire them to produce their best, while ALSO integrating their talents with those of their teammates or coworkers.

This is more likely to be achieved by way of praise, encouragement and harmony, a secret somehow withheld from those who, perhaps innately, thrive on criticism, discouragement, disparagement and disharmony. People may follow such leaders, but rarely like or respect them. They fail to appreciate the benefits of “genuine co-operation” as they seem to prefer competition, not only with opponents but even coworkers and teammates.

Some even believe that building a combative culture or environment achieves something positive, but does this really bring out the best in other people?

Is this really what they believe “best practice” to be, or rather a reflection of their  ultra-competitive personality and perhaps an insight into what may also be their own self-centredness?

Are those managers fundamentally far more interested in me, me, me really appropriate for such a role, when at the end of the day leadership should be all about we, we, we?

Even the most competitive, driven and determined sportsperson appreciates that they can only reach their peaks by way of co-operation with their coaches and teammates, especially if somehow they also manage to inspire them to consistently raise their own standards of performance.

For many years I have believed the primary job of anyone tasked with the responsibility of managing other people in any walk of life – whether teacher, team leader, manager, CEO or sporting captain – is to “get the best out of” those she or he is tasked with leading, with this potentially very rewarding challenge described by the modest manager of Ireland’s leading gaelic football team (alongside hurling, one of the world’s fastest and most thrilling sports) as “to get these people to be the best they can be.”

In sport, the managers who inspire their players by treating them the way they would like to be treated themselves, inspire their teams to greater heights, in a manner which rubs off on the players as they later become captains and managers themselves.

In sport, the top teams hire and promote the better managers and the better players, seldom those with a track record of underperformance. Not always so in other walks of life.

In sport, team members who fail to perform are usually dropped from the team. Not always so in other walks of life.

In sport, not all teams consist of stars but very few can afford to carry passengers. Not always so in other walks of life.

In sport, the managers who overachieve with small, underfunded teams are often rewarded by appointment to better teams.

In sport, the managers who underachieve with large, overfunded teams are seldom rewarded for their mediocrity.

In sport, an uninspired team low in confidence often finishes near the bottom of the league and risks demotion. Not always so in other walks of life. Only if there is a league and the non-performance can be measured and compared.

In sport, managers who fail ultimately often suffer the ultimate penalty and are certainly not rewarded for their incompetence. Not always so in other walks of life.

In sport, managers who cross the line of acceptable behaviour can be penalised and fined. Not always so in other walks of life.

In sport, the managers who prioritise their players over themselves, inspire their players to believe in themselves and to perform with a passion for their team, are respected.

In sport, managers who prioritise themselves over their players, believe in themselves more than others in them, are often not respected, either by the players or others.

In sport, the managers who manage by fear achieve results but little genuine admiration and respect.

In sport, the managers who thrive in being ruthless can achieve some “success” (whatever that may be) in the short-term, but risk damaging personal trust and the reputation of the team, perhaps never to be regained.

In sport, the managers who believe in being predominantly supportive, generous and considerate of everyone involved, consistently inspire those who they most need at the time of their and their team’s greatest need.

In sport, the managers who engage in public criticism and little praise risk losing the trust of their players. In stark contrast, the managers who engage in “public praise and private criticism” gain the critical qualities of respect and loyalty.

In sport, the managers who believe in “winning at all costs” may find this can be at the cost of reputation and support, especially from the “neutrals”. The managers who believe in “winning fairly” may win hearts and minds as well as achieve success for their team and supporters, who may grow as a group as more and more neutrals are attracted to the cause.

In sport, the managers who discourage and even demean others, boost their own ego. In very stark contrast, the managers who praise and encourage others, boost the ego of their team.

In sport, the more self-centred and controversial managers often only attract support while their team is winning.

In sport, the more modest, respectful and respectable managers often attract support even when their team is going through a bad patch.

In sport, the managers who publicly criticise their own players risk mutiny. The managers who praise those who tried their hardest, whatever the result, inspire them to try even harder next time.

Everyone is different and needs to be dealt with differently. Perhaps what is now known as “emotional intelligence” is needed to appreciate these differences and what is likely to work best with each of the wide variety of people and personalities which make up any team, as well as how to deal with the dynamic of the team as a group. The Dalai Lama sums up the empathy required to successfully manage people in any arena in just two words: “be kind”.

At the end of the day leaders with compassion for and an interest in others achieve far more, because their people respond by showing an interest in them and what they want to achieve for their organisation. They really do try to produce their best when they are sufficiently inspired to do so and feel that their contribution including ideas on how to do things better (a secret in many organisations) is genuinely appreciated and indeed valued.

Inclusion opens doors which exclusion closes.

But the leader or manager who is primarily focused on himself or herself may never appreciate this, whatever the arena, sporting, business, political, or indeed in any walk of life. Sometimes we can learn more about effective leadership when we examine it practiced badly.

The 2018 Champions League Final featured Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos elbowing his opponent’s goalkeeper, with US doctors specialising in head injury in American football subsequently believing the “blow to the head from Ramos” resulted in concussion or “visual spatial dysfunction”.

Earlier in “the game” Ramos ALSO locked arms with Liverpool’s key forward, Mo Salah, in a move which is banned in judo. Salah’s fall to the ground and subsequent shoulder injury meant his missing not only the rest of the match but also being injured and far from his best for his country, Egypt, at the subsequent World Cup. It also changed the momentum of the Champions League Final.

Head and shoulder injuries are more common in contact sports such as Rugby, Aussie Rules and American football than FOOT-ball, where “tackles” are supposed to be predominantly using legs and feet, even if in some countries too many of these are “sliding”, often following poor skill and lack of control, both of ball and mind.

Head and shoulder injuries are so rare in “football” or “soccer” that both transpiring in the one match and caused by the same player, who also readily falls over and holds parts of his body not hurt to have opponents yellow carded and sent off, is not the example that senior players in big games should be setting for the next generation of players and fans.

Yet the propensity of some players to engage in such antics were well known before the Champions League final, indeed are more prevalent in some nation’s leagues than others and detract from the enjoyment of watching.

Isn’t it odd that “football” or “soccer” players can fall or dive from little or no contact yet those playing far more physical sports do not? Maybe the penalty for such “soccer” players should be having to train with teams from more physical “football” sports for a week, where the incentive is to stay on your feet? How long would they last?

In other more direct contact sports, when key players are targeted by opponents, they usually receive the protection of the match officials. Those sports which have been slow to introduce live video refereeing and retrospective action against those who seek to target or injure opponents have much to learn from the likes of Aussie Rules football and Rugby football.

Oscar Wilde wrote “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

What about losing key opponents during what is supposed to be a “sporting” encounter? A careless act “in the moment”? Or calculated and premeditated? What is called in some sports “getting your retaliation in first”? Do the less scrupulous players involved really believe that no-one else CAN tell the difference?

Abraham Lincoln said “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” This is most certainly the case with the number of cameras televising modern sport.

Yet this does not seem to deter some, who subsequently make excuses and fail to appreciate that when they try to “justify the unjustifiable” and “deny the undeniable” they compound the damage they have already done to their own reputation and that of their team by neither apologising nor showing remorse for their actions.

This is alas another unfortunate parallel with business, or rather the worst of business, as such behaviour is thankfully not the norm. Just as many sporting matches are exactly that – sporting – most deals and transactions undertaken in business are conducted fairly and amicably, with a view to building and maintaining rather than damaging relationships, which of course is counterproductive, even if some businesspeople somehow cannot see this.

For them it is all about winning at all costs – even if this means the end of the relationship, which actually could be more productive if developed over the medium to long term than damaged in the short term, never to recover.

Sometimes the greatest damage done arising from “short-term opportunism” can be to “long-term reputation”, both of player and team or businessperson and corporation.

While myopic people seek every opportunity to “win at all costs”, visionary people see the benefits of nurturing relationships, with all people involved.

People are not just judged in many walks of life by their behaviour, but also by what it says about their character.

As someone said, reputation is how others see us, but character is even more important – as it is who we are.

Indeed Mo Salah perhaps displayed his true character by being more conciliatory than Sergio Ramos. While others would have made a bigger drama out of what was a major drama, played out on a global stage, yet he chose to downplay the significance of the incident. One player’s reputation was further enhanced, the other’s not, perhaps even damaged further.

Did Ramos really believe that he had to damage two key opponents to win a trophy his team had already won in prior years without having to resort to such skullduggery?

Do Ramos and many other players with a track record of feigning injury after a tackle and rolling around the ground as if mortally wounded, really believe this confers an advantage and that referees will “fall for it”? Alas too often they do and in football/soccer they can give a yellow and subsequently red card to players who hardly even made contact with their opponent, if at all.

Will the referee really TRUST such players next time they are genuinely tackled in the penalty area if they have a propensity for falling over theatrically in the middle of the pitch? They surely cannot complain (although they will) if the officials deny them a penalty kick when their team may most deserve or need it, because at the end of the day, they only have themselves to blame.

Perhaps they should consider this before they engage in “gamesmanship” in any shape or form?

Contrast this with Rugby, Gaelic, Aussie Rules and American footballers, as well as ice-hockey players, hurlers and those who play other sports which really do involve significant – and fair – contact, who just get up after a tackle and prove their character by just getting up and walking away, even if their bodies may be hurting for a few minutes. No diving. No playacting. No trying to get opponents sent off the pitch. No attempt to fool referees and officials. No cheating. No sport brought into disrepute. Reputation enhanced not damaged. Winning fair and square – which at the end of the day is all the more satisfying.

Surely the most satisfying victories include those when no awkward questions need to be asked afterwards?

No matter how effective or skilled as players, when they “cross the line” of what others may deem to be fair and acceptable and unfair and unacceptable practices, they do more damage than any particular incidents – sometimes to the reputation of their team or club or nation and perhaps even the very sport itself.

The same applies to players who surround referees and plead with them and harangue them after awarding a decision against their team. Has anyone ever seen a referee change their mind in such situations? Very rarely. Or are their antics designed to put pressure on the officials for the next incident?

There DOES seem to be a link between the degree of pressure exerted on officials and the degree of combativeness of the manager.

Maybe all other sports should follow the example of rugby – whereby only the team captain deals with the referee?

Maybe referees should enforce this and more frequently admonish players who treat them with disrespect? Like feigning injury, this too can be a “crying wolf” situation. When an official may have made a genuine mistake, which of course they do, perhaps he or she is more likely to listen to remonstrations from the players when these are infrequent and respectful?

But when players feign injury and treat officials with disrespect, or when managers use the media to pressurise officials in advance of a match, can they really be surprised when at the end of the day it is their opponents who may benefit from their key decisions during what is supposed to be a “sporting” encounter?

Do the ends justify the means?

This was a question we considered in 2017 when penning some thoughts on integrity in sport and parallels with other areas of life, including business.

How important is “TRUST” in sport and are “ROLE MODELS” more important in sport than elsewhere?

While some know where to “draw the line” and prefer to let their players do the talking, remaining low key and modest no matter how significant their achievements, other people can believe that ANY ADVANTAGE, no matter how minor, justifies behaviour which others would find inappropriate or objectionable. In their mind, the end justifies the means.

When such people are responsible for sporting teams, their penchant for self-promotion, controversy, being critical of their players in public and playing mind-games with opponents, referees and officials, rather than confining their comments to the performance of their OWN team, they can not only damage the reputation of their team, diminish team-spirit, demotivate some players and “bring the game into disrepute” but also inspire the opposition they have criticised to better perform. None of which deter some from repeating their actions, time and time again. Why might this be?

“WINNING AT ALL COSTS” can be as inappropriate in sport as elsewhere in society. The ends do not always justify the means, even if less scrupulous and more adversarial sportspeople believe it does. The methods they deploy can diminish their achievements.

Of course sports fans prefer their players and teams to win rather than lose, with unpredictability being one of the many factors which makes sport so engaging, but preferably with respect enhanced and not at the loss of reputation.

Is it possible to win – yet lose?

Like elsewhere in life, there are both exemplary role models and sporting villains, with many examples of good and bad sporting leadership, including sometimes both practiced by the same person, so let us just choose a few as illustration in this document (link below), written to inspire discussion and debate given the wonderful role sport can play in people’s lives, both as player and spectator, at any level, in any sport, in any nation, given the wonderful universality of sport.

Here are some comments on sporting integrity and parallels with other areas of life, including business and government of nations. This was written in June 2017, inspired by the then “Lions” rugby football tour of New Zealand – a team consisting of the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales who combine every four years to tour Australia, New Zealand South Africa every 12 years – which perhaps like the Ryder Cup golf shows what a uniting force sport can really be, exemplifying what ALL organisations are supposed to excel at but too rarely do – TEAMWORK!

At the end of the day, management in sport and business, like elsewhere in life, has one clear goal, by way of not only words and deeds but also setting the right example – to inspire everyone involved to produce their best!

As a wise, kind, most encouraging and incredibly positive and inspirational sports fan, psychologist, business trainer and author once wrote:

“We need to TRUST our potential to get achievements. I think with energy, positivity and effort we can get there! Never give up! I will win my own league!”

Perhaps that is the challenge for everyone involved in sport, business, government and all walks of life, to avail of our talents to produce our best, aided and inspired by teammates, coworkers, friends, peers and even opponents, who appreciate the benefits of competing fairly, with integrity to the fore, the ultimate “goal” being relationships and situations which all parties perceive to be “win. win, win”.

Considering and even sometimes prioritising the interests of others, achieved by way of putting ourselves in their shoes, meaning empathy, really can satisfy everyone involved, often achieving more collectively than what the Irish call a “mé féin” mindset, meaning “me myself”.  

The great secret kept from the most self-centred is that saying or doing whatever we can to make others happy, can make us happy too!

The Aussies are not the only people who like seeing the “tall poppies” cut down to size. People do like seeing the most considerate, modest and humble team-players win and the arrogant, proud and most self-centred lose, no matter the walk in life!

Management and leadership at the end of the day really is all about “we, we, we”, even if those who prioritise “me, me, me” fail to appreciate this,

Unlike many other areas in life when win, win, win, with the right co-operative mindset is very much achievable, sport usually does only produce one victor. Yet even in defeat, if people feel they have played well and contributed their “personal best”, they can ask little more of themselves (and teammates).

Surely this is a “win-win” situation too and what best epitomises sporting contests?

We can play badly and win and play well, yet lose. The joy experienced from playing well may differ from the thrill of winning and of course when one results in the other, all the better.

But sport being sport, we can all play well and lose to someone or another team who were just better – or more fortunate – on the day.

As a number of golfing greats including Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino have all said “the more I practice, the better I get”. Of course, especially when a ball is involved, good or bad luck will always play a role in sport and that is what may contribute to its very unpredictability as any other factor.

Nevertheless, like other areas in life, facing a challenge and rising to it, producing your best when most required, especially when others benefit too, can be a very satisfying experience.

So producing your best yet ultimately not prevailing can still be a victory in itself.

When you know you gave the sporting or business or any other encounter your “best shot”, and others were inspired to do so too, fairly and squarely, this can very much be a “win-win” situation, irrespective of the actual outcome.

Peter Drucker, perhaps one of the greatest of the many Business and Management thinkers and authors, believed that “the purpose of business is to create and retain a customer”.

Many advertising, sales, marketing and promotion specialists well know it may be far more difficult to create a new customer, especially in a competitive marketplace with many “players”. This in turn puts the onus on their coworkers to do their best to retain that customer by “super-servicing them”, when necessary “going beyond the call of duty” to satisfy their requirements, even if slightly unusual, rather than saying ” we can’t do that” or “it’s not my job”.

It is “CAN DO” rather than “CAN’T DO” CUSTOMER SERVICE  which brings people back, more likely when the organisational CULTURE is positive, constructive and harmonious.

“MONEY DRIVEN BUSINESSES” see the opportunity to “make money out of the customer” while “SERVICE DRIVEN BUSINESS” aim to “super-service their customer”. Astute and even visionary leaders, who excel at praise and encouragement, who naturally build “CO-OPERATIVE ORGANISATIONAL CULTURES”,  appreciate that only one of these approaches builds healthy relationships, leads to “word-of-mouth referrals” and attracts the customer back for the all important “repeat business”.

Yet somehow highly combative and myopically selfish, difficult, proud and money-oriented managers, who thrive on being critical, discouraging and innately build excessively “COMPETITIVE ORGANISATIONAL CULTURES”, fail to appreciate the difference, as they seek any possible short-term advantage.

Not unlike highly combative players and managers of sporting teams, seen by some to be RUTHLESS, such business people can appear to be oblivious to the consequences, which include bruised relationships, loss of trust and potentially even damaged reputation.

Socrates (the philosopher not Brasilian footballer) likened REPUTATION to a fire – much easier to keep kindled, but sometimes impossible to relight when allowed to become extinguished.

Those who allow trust and reputation to be damaged must surely be seen to have “taken their eye off the ball”.

At the end of the day, it is NOT all about “winning at all costs” or trying to “justify the unjustifiable” after  a hasty or erroneous action or decision. Taking a moment to consider the impact on both TRUST and REPUTATION before seeking a short-term but speculative gain, may help avoid suffering longer term pain.

Blanchard and Peale provide guidance for such situations: “there is no right way to do a wrong thing”.

This “simple” wisdom (simpler to advocate than practice) most certainly does not just apply to business. It can be just as relevant to any sporting encounter and indeed any form of interpersonal relationship.

One of business (and life’s) greatest secrets would appear to be that it is far better to pre-empt a deleterious outcome by considering all stakeholders and choosing to “do the right thing”, for all involved, than subsequently having to “deny the undeniable” and “justify the unjustifiable” , situations in which Crisis Communication experts suggest “owning up” would be far preferable to “covering up”.

When everyone involved – whether players or “stakeholders”  – all believe they came out well from a situation, with no-one disadvantaged, no-one feeling they were cheated and everyone both receiving some form of benefit and looking forward to doing something similar again, perhaps that should be the real “goal” of playing sport and taking part in business.

As my own sporty and sport-loving son said to me when he was much younger: “isn’t a draw when both teams win?”

Document for discussion:

Leadership, Integrity and Reputation – Sporting Parallels – June 2017

Anyone brave enough to read this document to the end, requiring endurance perhaps on a par with finishing the Tour de France or Round The World Yacht Race, feel free to add your own suggestions, critique, experiences, role models or sporting villains who you believe set a poor example:


Julian Clarke