I had the pleasure of listening to the NRL legend Sam Burgess at the recent 98 Riley St Foundation Seminar. Sam captained the South East Rabbitohs through the majority of 2017 and also had the honour to skipper England in the Rugby League World Cup Final in the same year.

What stood out for me above his impressive accolades on the field, were the qualities that made him what I would consider to be an exceptional leader. 

Listening to Sam speak, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between sporting leaders and managers in the corporate world. I believe that every corporate manager could learn a thing or two about leadership from those who hold the similar responsibilities on the sporting field… I define a leader as someone who as people who voluntarily follow them, while managers have people who work for them. While the roles are vary in their characteristics, I believe that any successful manager needs to display qualities of a leader.

 So I’ve listed 5 lessons learnt from leaders in sport that I believe anyone in a corporate leadership or management position could benefit from learning.


1. Leadership in sport is much more than a title.


In a corporate environment, it is common for people to be placed in a managerial position because they have the potential to become a leader, a potential they often never realise because of a lack of training and development available, or because they’ve simply been around long enough. Positional leaders will constantly wonder why they aren’t getting the best out of their people or getting the results that they want. The reason? Their team is only following their instructions because of their superficial title.

In sport, leaders are plucked out from the team because of a unique set of characteristics they possess, and a natural level of respect they have gained from their peers as a result. They lead by example.

I asked Sam at what point he realised he was a leader in his sport, and it wasn’t the day he became captain of the team… In fact, to this date, he doesn’t really see himself as a leader. Being a leader is a natural part of who he is. It is how he conducts himself in the World every day. And that is what makes him such a strong one.

For every leader, there are a team of workers getting the job done. Teams need to be filled with a mixture of leaders and workers. Growing in to a leader isn’t the ultimate measure of professional success – if you’re not a natural leader, then success can be a commitment to being the best god dam worker you can be. That quality is something to be proud of.


2. Managers in sport find what their team members are good at ensure they are on the right seat of the bus 

In NRL Forwards are typically bigger, stronger and heavier than Backs. A small forward would almost surely get killed by bigger opponents and a sluggish Back would struggle to keep up. Leaders in sport recognise what it takes to be successful in each position, and ensure that they have the right people in each seat of the bus.

So why on Earth would you expect to have a high performing team when you’re placing logical thinkers in front facing customer service roles, or have social extroverts spend their days entering data? And then complain that they aren’t performing in their role?

Corporate leaders could better invest their time in getting to know their team, ideally before recruiting them. Take a potential recruit out to coffee, have them take a personality test. Invest the time in getting to know who they truly are – beyond an immaculately well curated resume. Then commit to continually trying to understand them. You don’t need to know what they did on the weekend or how they spend their spare time, but to get the best out of your team you need to commit to understanding the strengths and the potential of each member of your team and respecting, and utilising, what makes them unique.


3. Managers in sport are committed to the development of their team

Sporting teams recognise that as the individual strengths within the team increase, the team as a whole increases the capacity of what they can accomplish.

In the corporate environment, once recruited in to a role, it is common that a person is deemed qualified to undertake the tasks on hand and therefore no other training and development is required. It’s almost as if a cap is put on your potential and good enough to do the job is all you’ll ever be… When the truth of the matter is that there is no limit to what you can achieve.

I could encourage anyone in a management position to invest in the ongoing education and development of their team. Who knows where you’ll end up as a result.


4. Leaders in sport have a clear vision for themselves and their team – to win.

While there are no doubt a collection of goals leaders in sport have for them and their team – essentially they are there to win. They aren’t wedded to one way of doing it – they know the sport inside and out and have ability to adapt and change tact along the way. Winning may be a by product of a collection of other goals. Leaders in sport are resilient and relentless in pursuit of their goal for them and their team.
I’m not too sure how many corporate leaders could clearly identify a strong and aspiring vision they have for them and their team. I’ve spoken with leaders who are so focused on what is next for themselves that they neglect to consider what implications their goal has on the team that they’ve been tasked to manage. I believe it is important to go after what you want, and as a manager, it is also your responsibility to ensure that you clearly define what constitutes success and failure for your team. A lack of clarity from management creates confusion and insecurity amongst any team. Strong leaders tell and show their team what they expect and just as coaches review winning plays and techniques, strong leaders provide examples of a successful outcome and coach their employees to achieve the desired outcome.


5. Leaders in sport fail fast, and move on.

In sport, teams need to ‘fail fast’ so that they can learn from their mistakes, make corrections and go on to the next play. Bouncing back faster from ‘failure’ leads to success faster. The same principle applies in the corporate world. How are you going to innovate and grow unless you fail? You need to fail fast, learn the lesson, get up and head off once again. Adapting to rapidly-changing world requires the ability to fail fast, make the necessary adjustments and move forward with confidence.

To do this, managers need to help their employees learn how to bounce back from a perceived failure. If you don’t bounce back quickly on the sporting field, you’ll be crushed. While the consequences aren’t as visible in the office, they are equally as detrimental.

A lot of problem solving happens when you get momentum. Fail fast, and move on.

No matter what position you hold in an organisation, appreciate that what will determine the impact you have on your workplace are the qualities that make you you. Not the title you hold. Treat any management role with the respect it deserves and you’ll have a team of people working with you who aren’t there simply for the pay cheque.