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What leadership in sports can teach us about building high performance teams


May 13, 2021



What leadership in sports can teach us about building high performance teams

At our ‘Rewrite The Playbook’ virtual summit, we heard from former Arsenal football manager Arsène Wenger and NBA all-star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who shared their philosophies of leadership and creating high-performance teams.

In my interview with Wenger, the iconic English Premier League (EPL) football manager came in as a foreign manager with even more foreign ideas on how to manage a football team. At the time, the EPL had a largely monolithic culture and the teams that performed well were often the ones who could afford the best players. But, his approach dramatically improved team performance and led the Arsenal team to win 3 Premier League titles, 7 FA Cups, and mastermind an entire unbeaten season in 2003-04. 

Although Johnson wasn’t in a leadership position until later in his basketball career, he brought a unique perspective into how his former coaches influenced his own coaching style, and how the mentors he had influenced how he later built his US billion business. Johnson shared how his coaches brought out the best in him and his teams, which allowed him to unleash his potential and continually be at the top of his game.

Watch the SC Training (formerly EdApp) virtual summit replay

Despite the two sporting leaders came from completely different eras, cultures, and sports, they both had the same rules and approach to leadership, and ultimately, the same goal – to win.

I’ve collected 6 similarities in their approaches and insights into leadership, and how we as L&D and training professionals can use these qualities to build high-performance teams.

Values always point true north

One of the most important leadership qualities Wenger and Johnson came back to over and over again was to define and uphold a set of values. Values are not just words that sit idly on office walls or in company presentations. They are the compass that guides many aspects of leadership – decision making, ability to influence and individual autonomy within your team. Having a strong set of core values – and living up to them – helps build respect and trust within your team, and is the foundation to high performing teams.

For Wenger, values were the backbone of his strategy. As a foreigner going into the English Premier League, he came into the Arsenal FC manager role with principles he was not willing to negotiate. This included integrity, respecting tradition, playing with style, being honesty, and ensuring fair play. In his 22 years of leading the Arsenal team, he never missed a game or practice – over 1,200 total – and firmly believed that the values you uphold were bigger than any trophy – they were a social responsibility.

In 1999, the Arsenal team values were put to the test in a FA Cup tie match against Sheffield United. The ball had gone out for a throw and one of Arsenal’s players had ignored the time-honoured convention of returning possession before scoring the game-winning goal. Although Arsenal had technically won the match, Wenger called for a replay of the game to ensure that they had fairly won. Ultimately, Arsenal won against Sheffield United again, but it was his strong dedication to team values that strengthened his position as a strong and capable leader.

For Johnson, the value of hard work and dedication was deeply ingrained in him from a young age, as his father would not accept anything less than a job well done:

Son, if you do this job halfway, you will do everything in your life halfway. You’ll do your homework halfway, you’ll practice basketball halfway.” Just at that moment, I became a perfectionist and I became a guy just like my father. My work ethic is off the chart because of him.

Although values are introduced to our employees during the onboarding process, it’s important as training and development professionals to ensure that your company’s values are ingrained in each learning opportunity your employees have. By aligning your values to your training, your teams will be able to take ownership over how they contribute to your company’s overall goals.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

When we think of the old adage ‘Practice makes perfect,’ what it’s really speaking to is the idea of repeating something until it becomes ingrained. As a company that facilitates learning, we regularly see the success of spaced repetition, where a learner will be introduced to the same concept at frequent intervals until they’ve demonstrably learned it. 

Wenger, who frequently rebuilt the Arsenal team from the ground up with young players, touched on the idea that repetition was key to taking talented players from good to great. As he says, “Talent without effort doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Effort is daily. That’s why I advise people to go into micro performances, to do every day something that you don’t like because it makes you stronger. And I believe that this culture of performance is deeply linked with effort.

Johnson saw this as well in his own basketball career, and in his competitors and teammates. Then-LA Lakers coach Pat Riley would push him and his teammates in practice every day and expected nothing less than a flawless execution. For the Lakers, they would work hard and practice every scenario, so that on game day, it was easy.

We understood what we had to do because Pat Riley made us do the same thing over and over and over again. And he paid attention to details – he was a detail-oriented coach and that made us be detail-oriented players. So, we were mentally and physically tough because of Pat Riley and his leadership style.

Outside of the sports world, organizations don’t have many opportunities to ‘practice’ apart from in a training context. As training is often infrequent and doesn’t always allow for employees to use their newly acquired skills, learnings are often forgotten in as little as a few minutes. Most learners will forget 40 per cent of new information within 20 minutes and up to 65 per cent within 9 hours. That’s why repetitive training helps embed knowledge most effectively and fight the ‘forgetting curve.’ In an organizational context, this might look like spaced repetition, which helps the learner retain up to 90 per cent of new knowledge.

Education is vital to success

For both sports leaders, education and a dedication to lifelong learning are essential to creating strong players and leading a successful team. During the SC Training (formerly EdApp) summit, Johnson spoke of how he learned early on in his life that education played a key role in being able to play basketball. In his young life, it was his parents who had instilled in him that he had to get good grades to be allowed to continue playing basketball. As he reached high school, it was his teachers who pointed out to him that he would not be able to play basketball at the best colleges if he didn’t have the grades to grant him admission.

As Johnson became a professional basketball player, he didn’t stop learning. He saw the opportunity to learn more about the business behind basketball and seek out mentors from the successful business people who would purchase court-side tickets to LA Lakers games. Ultimately, this is what made his transition from the basketball court to the boardroom seamless, as he already had the knowledge and guidance of how to run a business.

Wenger also spoke to the importance of having a strong education to be intelligent players. Now, as FIFA’s Chief of Global Development, Wenger realized that the quality of education is one of the strongest predictors of how well that country’s team will compete in the league. For Wenger, education comes in two parts: Teaching and giving models. Teaching allows for direct interaction for a couple of hours per day, and models act as a guide to help you make your own decisions for the remainder of the day. 

The sociological environment of a football player today is vital for his success. And for that, you need a high level of education. So focus well on your education.

Education and building intelligent teams is also vital in the business world. In order to be successful in their current and future roles, your employees need to be up-to-date on the latest skill sets and job requirements to keep your organization competitive in the wider market. That’s why you need to provide relevant and timely training and development opportunities so your team has the best chance of bringing your organization success.

Great leaders inspire greatness in their people

Great leaders don’t tell their teams exactly how they want each player to act. According to Wenger, they set expectations high and maintain that target – it’s up to each individual to determine how they achieve that target for the team project to be owned by everyone.

It is the occasion that creates the leader. You’re not all conscious. I was not conscious of whether I could be a leader when I was a kid –  it’s people around me who put me in a leadership position. It’s more of my environment who pushed me into that position.

Johnson had a similar experience as a player with his head coach, Pat Riley. His dedication to “doing things the right way” and preparing the team to win meant that the LA Lakers would go into each game knowing that all they had to do was carry out the game plan and they would be successful. 

In an organization, this looks like providing the training and tools your employees need to autonomously do their best work every day. L&D departments can help facilitate this by encouraging their employees to take learning into their own hands. Instead of operating from a top-down model, where management tells employees what to do and what to learn, a bottom-up system allows employees to take more ownership in becoming high performers.

No egos allowed

For both Johnson and Wenger, the collective goal of winning was more important than the individual egos of each player in the game. As Wenger was skilling up younger players to join the Arsenal team, he was able to instil this goal-first ideal into each player so that they were focused on winning the game, as opposed to playing to be the best player.

Johnson had a similar experience when he played in the 1992 US Men’s Basketball team at the Olympics. Known as the ‘Dream Team,’ Head Coach Chuck Daly had nominated Michael Jordan to be captain of the team. Michael Jordan then walked into the middle of the huddle and said, “No, coach, I don’t deserve to be the captain. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson should be the captain of the Dream Team.” This immediately signalled to the team that even though they had a team full of all-stars, it would mean nothing without taking home the gold medal.

Right then and there, everybody knew they had to leave their ego at the door; they had to only care about playing their role and winning. They didn’t care about how many points they scored, who got their name in the paper, none of that. All they cared about was winning and playing the game the right way.

In an L&D context, this means setting the standard of team-first and shutting down any blame culture that might pop up in the workplace. If individuals are hoarding knowledge and not sharing what they excel at, it creates a competitive dynamic where some employees are favoured because they know more than others and aren’t willing to help their team members get to the same level of success. This holds back your team from being able to achieve company goals and is unproductive.

Control your reaction, control the outcome

A leader’s first instincts cannot be reactive. It’s their job to face any adversity with an objective view to get the best outcomes for their teams and to keep pressing forward. During the SC Training (formerly EdApp) summit, Johnson shared his story of when he learned he had HIV and how he tackled his diagnosis head-on. Once he figured out how it would impact his then-pregnant wife and his unborn son, his next question was: ‘What do I have to do next?’ 

Wenger also touched on this idea of controlling your reactions as a leader because emotional outbursts can cause a lot of damage. To stay objective when he’s leading his team, Wenger turns to the three C’s:

The three C’s are very important in this kind of job. It’s first of all, concentration. The second C is calm, and the third C is control. When you’re not in control in competition, you’re in danger. And that’s why I always try to apply that to myself.

In a similar vein, approaching challenges requires business leaders to set aside their own feelings on the matter and focus on moving forward. How a leader reacts to challenges communicates more than who they are on a personal level – it also demonstrates what’s acceptable at the company. L&D teams can support this by providing emotional intelligence training to individuals in leadership positions to ensure the best outcomes for the organization.

Analyze your performance

Although pulling reports is part of any leadership position, it’s what you do with that information that has the ability to transform your team’s performance. Wenger was the first EPL manager to take computer data on each individual player’s performance and use it to strengthen and motivate his team. This allowed him to have an objective analysis of his players’ performances, which would help him see how they could improve.

Johnson had a similar experience during his time with the LA Lakers, where then-coach Pat Riley would use index cards to mark whenever a player would lose the ball, miss a pass, and miss a shot. These ‘report cards’ would allow the players to objectively see where they needed to improve that week to ensure that they were always at the top of their game.

Leaders should also use data to analyze how well each member of their team is performing. As each employee will have different strengths and weaknesses, it will help prioritize the training and development your team needs and allow you to be able to better communicate what you need from them to be successful.

If we combine all of these leadership qualities and insights, it shows the direction that the future of learning is heading in: Learners and leaders alike need to have access to convenient, regular training.

Now that training has undergone digital transformation overnight, it gives us learning professionals the time and opportunity to see what works well for our organizations – and what doesn’t. This includes the tools we need to keep our teams on track and productive.

At SC Training (formerly EdApp), we’re committed to providing the tools that training and development professionals need to provide relevant and timely training to their teams. Our mobile-first platform means that your learners can complete their training in small bursts whenever they have a few minutes available – enabling you to build a culture of learning and high performance at your organization. Click the button below to learn more about how SC Training (formerly EdApp) can support your team.

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Darren Winterford

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