“Humble and hungry”: Using sports to inspire organisational change

Can professional sports today, so unapologetically commercial and far removed from the original idea of pure fun, inspire change in our organisations?

History, cinema, or sports are just some of the spheres which companies and their top executives regularly look to for sources of inspiration and models to follow: seeking to glean lessons on human interaction and how to implement organisational change. The recent passing of legendary university basketball coach Dean Smith (Michael Jordan’s mentor), along with the frequent media attention to the philosophies of veteran coaches such as Sir Alex Ferguson (Fergie) and Marcelo Bielsa, makes it a particularly appropriate moment to reflect on some of their key lessons on managing teams of people.

When starting off his pep talks, Fergie used to say: "Anyone can be successful", which was his version of Einstein’s "Everyone is a genius". Undeniably, it was an expression of a faith in people as protagonists of their own destiny, armed with their own creativity and effort, passion and self-confidence, and driven on by their own dreams. 

On the one hand, however, this should not be interpreted by the reader as an exaltation of individualism; quite the contrary. They say that Fergie, affectionately known as 'the Old Scotsman', used to write the commandments of teamwork on the dressing room blackboard:

a)    The six most important words: "I admit I’ve made a mistake";

b)    The five most important words: "You've done a good job";

c)    The four most important words: "What do you think?"

d)    The three most important words: "In your opinion";

e)    The two most important words: "Many thanks";

f)     And finally, the only real important word: "Us";

g)    But, the least important of all: "me". 

On the other hand, though, this ethos should not be viewed as a desire to attain success and triumph at all costs. Although building winning teams was Fergie’s top priority, it was not to be done at any price. Many renowned leaders share a commitment to long-term goals; projects which are built from the bottom up, periodically reinvented, and founded upon the highest standards of hard work, honour and integrity. These are the types of teams which never cease to adapt and prepare for victory.

Nevertheless, as in anything in life, one may win, or lose. For the likes of Fergie, Smith, and Bielsa, what matters most is "the nobility of resources employed", because “success isn’t synonymous with happiness. Leadership is directly connected with defeat. This is how we test the true calibre of a leader, who must be first loved in order to win, and not because of having already won."

Equipped with a proverbial capacity of synthesis, Old Dean Smith repeated his powerful speech not once, but a thousand times over. He succinctly summed up his idea of sports and high-performance teams: "Play hard. Play smart. Play together." Additionally, time and again he used to tell his players that he wanted them “humble and hungry”, especially following a victory; "like the lion which never roars after catching its prey". 

Thus, the question begs: Can professional sports today, so unapologetically commercial and far removed from the original idea of pure fun, inspire change in our organisations? I’d like to close with the words of coach Marcelo Bielsa: "Sports taught me that generosity was better than indifference; I learned the value and meaning of courage; I learned the importance of doing one’s best, and I learned the transcendence of rebelliousness".

So then, is it really just a game?



Oscar Valdivielso

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