Economics tells us that supply swiftly follows demand. If we need something, free enterprise ramps up to provide it. The operation of markets is a wonderful thing to behold. Efficient and effective, the system fills voids in a true and timely matter.
Markets work marvelously for tangibles like books, bourbon, and bras. But no so much so for intangibles like leadership; a thing we can all agree is in short supply and desperately needed. Leaders cannot be forged in the fires of industry. They cannot be conjured by the creative economy. They cannot be summoned by moment’s need. The qualities of a leader cannot be manufactured and transacted on Wall Street. We have to find leaders, in any nook and cranny of society they might dwell.
But where? We’ve traditionally looked to two sources.
The first is the military. A proven testing ground, active-service and veterans have a huge array of experience coupled with weighty responsibilities. They stood for a principle, they coordinated people in service of unified ends, and they worked cross-functionally. For all the right reasons, they’re excellent leadership recruits. But the transition from military command to civilian ranks is delicate and difficult to traverse. And in any event, the needed supply just doesn’t meet the demand.
Second is the school of hard knocks, the boot-strappers, the proverbial Horatio Alger’s. The men and women who started on the factory floor and worked their way up, or launched a garage business and astutely built it, or found a way to leverage their high school debate team skills to soaring oratory on the political platform. These leaders have realized the American Promise; that you can be anything you want to be. The problem here, though, is that these people have to find themselves before we find them. And, again, there just aren’t enough of them.
There is a third source—a veritable gold vein that’s not been mined as deeply as it should. In many cases, these men and woman are household names. We follow their careers and admire their accomplishments. Professional athletes. Below are five reasons why they fit the bill.
1) Professional athletes are determined. True, many are endowed with physical gifts, be it size, speed, or savvy. But as with any gift, realizing it is hard work. Progressing in sports is an increasingly exclusive series of hurdles that can’t be cleared without discipline, focus, patience, practice, and more practice. Only the indomitable can leverage their talent to move from high school to college to professional ball. It takes decades of sweat equity to bring whatever a leader possesses to fruition. We simply won’t follow someone who hasn’t demonstrated determination.
2) These men and women don’t just preach teamwork; they practice it. They simply can’t achieve their individual aspiration with their fellow team-members. A sports team is like a jazz band; integration is necessary to gather a coherent whole, but everybody gets the chance to shine. There might be a “most valuable player,” but he or she is first among equals. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has to do their job or no one gets the ring or the trophy. More than ever, modern organizations need the intense and intentional cross-functionality that team sports can supply.
3) Professional athletes appreciate followership. “Follow the Leader” is not just a playground game. It’s an experience in serving greater purpose. Athletes understand the tangible advantages of executing a plan. Their very goal achievement is contingent upon following, well and truly. Maybe counter-intuitively, leading is rooted in having learned the lessons of following, for the simple reasons that leaders have to understand what followers need and want in order to excel.
4) They are cognitively complex. They grasp the dynamic flow of many inter-related variables, simultaneously played. As any fan will attest, the strategic machinations of a successful franchise are convoluted and complex. The plays themselves have layers upon layers, intricacies upon intricacies, variations upon variations. Their wits are challenged with hundreds of unpredictable factors that require seamless adaptation and improvisation. This kind of thinking stands to today’s fast moving environment.
5) Professional athletes know what it’s like to work under pressure. There are enormous stakes. A lot of people are watching. The investment in time, talent, money, and reputation is ever-present. They have to check their anxieties and injuries at the door to stay calm, cool, and collected. If one player loses his or her composure, the efforts of the rest are squandered. Nothing’s more valued in today’s stressful business climate than a level head.
Society extolls the virtues of team sports, earnestly believing that they develop teamwork, discipline, followership, intellect, and level-headedness. Sports surface, support, and, potentially, impart, that most important of leadership qualities: character. Professional athletes have character, in abundance. I know first-hand, having taught many in executive programs, and becoming friends with a few.
The cynical line of Paul Simon’s, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you” captures a leadership vacuum. But, in this context, it’s not cynical at all, because the inheritors of DiMaggio’s legacy—todays professional athletes—are well equipped to answer the call. They are the real thing, a next generation, and it is time we turned to them to provide the leadership we yearn for, and deserve.
For the Business Week version, click here.
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