Wednesday 4 December 2019 6:02 am

Stop comparing business with football

Philip Haglund is founder of financial literacy app Gimi.

There are many similarities to be drawn between the executive boardroom and the football pitch. Both are high-stakes environments, full of competition and ruthlessness. 

They also host some of the most meaningless jargon in the history of the English language (think “game of two halves” and “reaching out about disrupting industries”). And, dare I say it, they tend to be full of overpaid men.

When Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the most revered managers in football, was asked to give a course at Harvard Business School, the LinkedIn thought-leaders inked their digital quills and published article after article likening sporting leaders to business titans. 

“People are people,” they proclaimed. “Man management is a universal concept.” “If Jurgen Klopp wasn’t sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, he’d be running a cryptocurrency unicorn.” That sort of thing.

As a professional footballer myself with over 200 appearances in Sweden’s top league, who now also runs a financial literacy technology startup, I can tell you that the comparison between these two worlds is absurd. The idea that sports and business leaders are interchangable is naive, and demonstrates a reductive impression of what good leadership is. Here’s why.

With sport teams, athletes depend on specific sets of instructions to fine-tune their performance and operate cohesively within a larger group. They need to know the precise circumstances for choosing attack over defence, for example, or marking a specific opponent. Sports teams have rigid sets of tactics which each individual must obey to the letter, so that they can become stronger than the sum of their parts and defeat their opponents. 

Any business leader who tried to replicate this would be accused of chronic micromanagement. To get the most out of a team in the corporate setting, your staff need freedom to experiment, create, fail, and learn. Trust has enormous currency between managers and team members, and allowing your employees to think for themselves is how you can scale a business. 

However, if you adopt that mentality on the football pitch, where matches are won by the finest of margins, you might find deviations from the game plan lead to more than just proverbial own goals.

Inspirational quotes from famous people in history might give the impression that the best motivators can succeed in any environment, but this is overly simplistic. Athletes live and breathe their sport. To even reach a professional level, they already have bags of perseverance and grit: their passion is their work. The best coaches know this, and reserve the emotional speech, screaming in an athlete’s face, and kicking over the tactics boards for the rare occasions when the players’ bodies are stretched to the peak of their ability and they need some motivation to find that last sliver of energy. 

Conversely, employees need a more sustained motivational approach. Perhaps this is a harsh truth for the more Messianic bosses out there, but most people don’t consider their job their passion. They care about what they do, of course, but they need clear goals and continued leadership to be inspired on a daily basis. 

Also, the timeframe is completely different. According to The Houston Chronicle, players’ careers in the US National Football League average at 2.5 years. Successful businesses can never be built on such short-termism and high staff turnover.

It is easy to assume that the best football managers could run successful companies, especially with their god-like statuses in the modern game. But this is a fallacy. If you work with someone who thinks differently, and has a one-size-fits-all conception of good leadership, then they might be hearing chants of “sacked in the morning” before too long.

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