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How can sports help us be better leaders?

We’ve long been a proponent that construction can learn a lot from sport.

The use of data to better understand all aspects of an individual and a team’s performance and the ability to plan based on this is a lesson that we as an industry could learn so much from. Here is a great example of individual brilliance built by data-driven decisions to maximise performance:

As this shows, as important as individual ability is, the team effort, it’s leadership and how this can take an individual’s performance to a new level. This success came from several aspects, namely knowing one’s own abilities and limits, knowing the competition, and a clear and decisive strategy delivered through leadership and teamwork.

Similarly, in construction, developing a high performing team can be the difference between a failed project and a highly successful one.

Building a high performing team…

Sport regularly shows how strong leadership can help teams be more than the sum of their parts.

Throughout sporting history, the tale of the underdog overcoming adversity is one well-travelled and well known.

If you look at teams that have built dynasties, one of the key similarities is the leadership in place inspiring a team to perform at a level that could be considered greater than the sum of their parts.

The key to building a high performing team is:

  • Leaders who inspire
  • Leaders who resolve conflict and increase co-operation
  • Leaders who set stretch goals
  • Leaders who communicate the vision and direction
  • Leaders who are trusted

How leadership impacts performance…

Another sporting example of how investment does not guarantee success is the performance of two football clubs in Manchester.

Both teams invested heavily, however, the outcome was drastically different with one team performing to a higher level than seen previously, with the other consistently performing much lower than the potential of its constituent parts.

A coherent and consistent strategy with strong leadership were two clear differences that could be seen.

Long before Pep arrived at Manchester City a strategy to excel existed at the club. Recruitment and infrastructure investment were considered, and the required changes were put in place to achieve the desired outcome.

The owners realised however that to take things to the next level they required a leader that understood their vision and could inspire the team to new heights.

In Pep Manchester City have a leader who has a clear vision, who developed both a short and long-term strategy to achieve this vision and built the support of the people around him. He and the team were entrusted with achieving the club’s vision every time they stepped out on the pitch.

Trusted lieutenants on the pitch were tasked with communicating the vision and tactics, understanding the intricacies and how to adapt to overcome challenges.  These players have clearly been empowered to manage situations as they develop and take charge to improve the performance of the whole team. They have earnt the trust of both their leader and the team around them.

Clearly, Guardiola has the skill to cover every aspect of this leadership Venn diagram to achieve this success. However, this is not easy either in sport or in business, and often requires the right leader, the right team, the right culture, and of course time.

On the other side of Manchester, you had a team that looked reminiscent of a business that has invested through acquisition without considering how each component could be integrated, would have the desire to work together, or if the acquisitions would bring about the desired improvements in the whole.

United were a team with no identity, no clear vision and who’s mission appeared to be centred around defending its position rather than being the best it could be. In business, this is called a play-not-to-lose strategy and is widely employed by many companies. It generally results in firms being outsmarted by the opposition, being slow to react to changing market conditions and a focus on short term top-line growth rather than long term profits and shareholder value.

The Manchester United that Mourinho inherited had no trust in each other, no clear communication on or off the pitch and needed a leader to inspire and influence them back to winning ways.

In business, leader influence is built with time through several different stages starting with self-awareness and reflection.

Mourinho was clearly a self-aware individual.  However, although he had some limited success in his early days at United, over time it was evident that he didn’t reflect on how his behaviour (particularly in the press) was affecting the team. This prevented the lasting positive impact that was desperately required.

But, was Mourinho ever the correct choice for Manchester United? Football clubs, like businesses, experience different stages in their existence. These stages require different management and leadership styles. Mourinho’s previous success came from clubs on the rise or in maturity, not one’s suffering decline or crisis as it could be argued United were facing following the appointment of three different managers in relatively quick succession after the long stability of Alex Ferguson.  The skills required to be a turnaround leader are very different to creators, accelerators and sustainers, the same roles that Mourinho exhibited at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea again.

The events that unfolded resulted in a lack of trust in the management team, with individual performances falling as players questioned their own ability and their commitment to the cause.

We see this happen all the time within construction organisations, but culturally we find it difficult to acknowledge and make the changes required to unlock the operational performance that could be achieved.

Throughout our industry, we talk about the challenges facing construction and how adopting new methods and technology will alleviate this. We agree with the principle, but we mustn’t forget the importance of people, a clear vision and the right leadership to implement that is required to maximise a team’s performance.





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