Leadership by Example - How to Play to Win in Your Career

Jim Citrin

She's a real team player. He plays hardball. We're only in the second inning of the game. It's time to drive the ball over the goal line. Sports metaphors are common in business discussions. As General Electric's CEO Jeff Immelt said, in its recruiting GE looks favorably on candidates who have played team sports because the experience in competitive, collaborative activities is directly transferable to working and winning at GE (see "GE's Jeff Immelt: Learning Is a Leader's Edge").

For this reason, I've been on a quest to speak to the world's most inspiring sports leaders. I aim to derive insights that can be applied off the field (or court, or track, or out of the pool), in everyday work and life.

Basketball Star and a Rhodes Scholar

One inspiring leader with whom I met recently is Bill Bradley, former U.S. senator from New Jersey and Basketball Hall of Famer from the New York Knicks. Bill began playing basketball in fourth grade and was a basketball star at Crystal City High School in Missouri. An honors graduate and three-time NCAA All-American and the 1965 Player of the Year at Princeton, Bill was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. He also served as captain of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1964.

In the NBA, Bill played guard and power forward for 10 seasons with the Knicks and was a member of the 1970 and 1973 NBA championship teams, along with legends Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, and Walt Frazier.

Important Lessons From Sports

Not surprisingly, Bill is a strong believer in how sports help develop the attitudes and knowledge for a healthy, balanced, and successful life. Hard work and dedication is one of the most important lessons learned from sports, he believes. Bill's basketball coach once shared words that made a lasting impression: "If you're not practicing, just remember -- someone, somewhere is practicing, and when you two meet, given roughly equal ability, he will win."

Another invaluable benefit from playing sports is learning sound values. "To have imprinted on you things such as courage, discipline, respect, responsibility, and imagination is really a remarkable thing," Bill told me. "Not that you couldn't get it playing the trumpet or going for the physics prize. But for me it happened in basketball, and for many others it happened in sports as well."

In his book, "Values of the Game," Bill wrote that "The noble spirit of athletic competition and achievement can reflect the highest values of our collective life." When I asked what he meant by that, he said, "Where there's tremendous individual sacrifice for the benefit of the collective, it shows what's possible for groups of human beings when they're focused, unselfish and talented. In other words, it can show you what collective excellence is."

He explained further, talking about the importance of working as a cooperative member of a group. "Parents always tell their kids to make good grades, right? But most don't really tell them how to get along in groups. They don't really teach what you can achieve if you're unselfish. Basketball and other team sports show you how unselfishness is the key to success."

Who Is the Team Leader?

It's easy to determine who the leader is on a basketball team. According to Bill, he or she is the one to whom the team looks to take the last-second shot. Sure, that's also usually the best player. But it has to do as well with trust and the assumption of responsibility. Being a leader means that you have to be willing to step up, take the risk of leadership, and be held responsible for the outcome of your actions.

One of the key patterns of highly successful careers is building upon experience in one role and applying that experience in new ways to a new role. Whether in sports or business, exceptional performance at one stage opens up opportunities in the next. How did Bill take his experience from the basketball court and then apply it in the U.S. Senate?

From the Locker Room to the Senate Cloak Room

"I essentially came from the locker room to the Senate," Bill said. "Within a year, I was a little disoriented. Then one late night around 11 o'clock, I looked around the Democratic cloak room. I noticed one senator writing something, another senator telling a joke, another senator walking back and forth in contemplation, another talking on the phone, and another senator reading quietly. At that moment I thought, 'you know, this isn't a lot different than the Knicks locker room.'"

Soon Bill realized that he could apply the lessons he learned as a player of goal setting, teamwork, and dedication to working effectively as a senator. "We had to get people from disparate backgrounds to come together and cooperate to achieve a common end. It turned out that how I conducted myself in the interpersonal dynamics of the Senate was the same as when I was on the Knicks."

His guiding principle was, "Don't worry about the credit." "We used to have a joke about how to succeed in a Republican Senate -- let them steal your ideas! The point is that there are plenty of players on a team in the locker room who want to talk to the press. And virtually every senator wants to be in front of the camera as well. So if you were interested in the success of your endeavor, then the credit for the idea was something that easily could be traded away in order to achieve the result you were looking for."

For Bill Bradley, one of the world's most inspiring athletes turned leaders, this attitude of working with and succeeding through others is a direct carry-over from his life on the basketball court.

Three Questions on Sports, Leadership, and Success

1. Who are the sports leaders you find most inspiring?
2. Which renowned business leaders were great athletes?
3. What do you think about the connection between sports and business success?

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