Leadership Lessons: What professional sports taught me

How sport taught me about culture, friendship, family and tradition – although I didn’t realise at the time just how important those lessons would be.

It was 1999 in Clermont Ferrand in France. I was playing rugby for one of Europe’s biggest clubs called Clermont Auvergne, just having retired from international rugby following the 1999 World Cup. It was a time in my life where I was lucky enough to be able to play the sport I was most passionate about. And it was then that I really began to appreciate what teamwork really is and how important it was to be surrounded by people you trust, respect and value.

During my time in Clermont, we would come together every morning in the locker room to get ready for the day’s training session. What struck me most in the first few weeks was how welcoming everyone was. In fact, it was then that I came to experience the exchanging of kisses – la bise – as it’s called in France. Instead of shaking hands, French people exchanged kisses – and there’s a whole art to this which helped me discover more about culture, friendship, family and tradition.

Performance and success

Reflecting on my almost 15 years of playing rugby professionally, I realised that it was so much more than being allowed to play a sport I love. The skills that sport taught me continued to shine through into other areas of my life. I saw the value of being part of a team and the interactions I had with my teammates.

Don’t get me wrong – that’s not to say you can only learn these skills from playing team sports. Absolutely not. It’s more about the act of looking back on my past experiences to help me continue to learn and develop myself. Specifically for me though, it was those life lessons in the early days of my rugby career which had the most impact on what would later become my values. Although at the time I didn’t realise just how important that part of my life was.

There are 3 areas that stand out for me as being essential to success in both business and sports:

  • Teamwork – this is the collaborate effort of any group of people coming together to complete a common goal. This involves clear and regular communication, learning to trust one another, sharing the credit (whether good or bad) and collective cooperation
  • Discipline – this is the practice of building your skills to become better at something through following specific rules or standards of behaviour. While I don’t play a sport today, I still maintain the discipline to go to the gym at 6am everyday as fitness remains an essential part of my general wellbeing. It is this same discipline and dedication that I use to help CEOs find the right people to lead their teams
  • Commitment – going to the gym, for example, requires a sacrifice of time and energy. I don’t do this for anyone other than myself because I realised a long time ago that if I want to achieve anything, I need to fully commit and build time into my day dedicated to it

To make these attributes work successfully and harmoniously requires a great leader. In rugby, this was the coach. It was the coach whose job it was to make sure we had the right people on the team. It was the coach who discovered and appointed these high performing people into positions on the team. It was the coach who made sure the team worked well together, that they obeyed the rules, and that they were fully committed to the mutual success we could achieve by playing together.

I experienced these attributes during my sporting career, and they continue to ring true at Redgrave. We are a small firm of 40 people which means it’s even more important to be surrounded by the right people who have the relevant skills and are dedicated to the success of our firm. There is a collective buy-in to the firm’s core values, driven by personal commitment, working hard and being supportive and honest. This is how we’ve built our culture, and the people who join us in the future will continue to take us from strength to strength. We don’t just bring in people who are like us. We challenge ourselves to look at the gaps in our structure and skillset and set out to find the individuals who will complement this, and who can draw upon what they’ve learnt from their own life experiences, education and previous careers.

And it’s essential to create a solid organisational structure that empowers everyone to make smart decisions and execute them effectively, where they are supported by open and transparent leadership.

Create your learning journey

Each life experience is an opportunity to learn. My learning journey is far from over. What my first experience of la bise taught me was that people are different. They may show affection in a different way to me. They may express trust in a different way. I learnt to appreciate these differences, particularly in a team, as it’s differences that make us stronger together.

I encourage everyone to find their opportunities to learn something new. Learn something about yourself when you’re rushing to get your train in the morning. Learn from the person sat next to you in the office. It will likely be these small events that help you overcome challenges and help you maintain a more fulfilled life and career.

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.  HELEN KELLER


By Paul Burnell

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