Our muscular heroes

High achievers in sport may be loved and admired by us ordinary toilers, but do the ingredients of their success transfer to mundane corporate life?

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I lost a game of pool, many years ago, to a guy who was in the process of dropping out of medical school. He was going to focus instead on his running. Everyone thought he was crazy, of course. But a few years later he won an Olympic gold medal in the 4 x 400 metres, became the men's team captain and took an individual medal in the 1996 Olympics. (I still think, though, that if only I'd potted that ball over the centre pocket, I could have taken him.)

Now, of course, Roger Black MBE is a successful TV presenter, as well of one of the UK's leading motivational speakers. But does he, in the middle of the night, ever think that he could have been earning a fraction of what he does now, staying up all night trying to save drunken, ungrateful patients in Portsmouth General Hospital? Probably not.

Black is only one of dozens of former sportsmen and women on the speaking circuit - take your pick from Gareth Edwards, Lawrence Dallaglio, Tommy Docherty, Kelly Holmes, Ellen MacArthur - in fact, google your favourite and the chances are that they'll come and speak at your firm's annual conference. Lots of them are very good - inspiring, funny and capable of providing a real buzz at any event at which a slow death by PowerPoint is the real agenda.

People who have achieved personal triumph are attractive to us mere mortals.

As they stand before us, sleek golden gods descended from Mount Olympus, a sense of awe is difficult to avoid. A similar effect can be generated by those who have climbed Everest one-handed or faced real mortal danger in military conflict. For Bob from accounts, this might be the day's highlight.

Some sportspeople go further, setting up coaching or performance consultancies, applying the lessons of winning medals to the more mundane business of hitting quarterly sales targets. But is there really much to be learnt from our muscular heroes? The truth is that many of the greatest sporting successes are intensely individual, requiring a degree of discipline that, for most people, would qualify as obsession. By definition, successful sportspeople have a certain kind of personality. Black himself says that one of the characteristics of a champion is that they combine 'a high need for achievement with low fear of failure'.

But these are not necessarily the characteristics you'd want in, say, your chief accountant. Most businesses face a range of success measures, a constantly shifting commercial environment and have a wide range of skill levels and personality types on the payroll. By comparison, the world of sport - especially in individual events, where most of the stars are made - is a straightforward endeavour. Not easy, of course (quite the opposite), but not complex.

With London set to host the 2012 Olympic Games, a row is taking place in Whitehall over how much the Government should spend on our athletes to achieve a respectable medal ranking. Apparently, Tessa Jowell wants us to come fourth, but the Treasury would settle for eighth. Each medal will cost the taxpayer about £15 million. Given the lucrative fees to be made on the other side, perhaps Gordon Brown should subsidise athletes on a loan basis, with repayments owing if the investment proves successful.

Of course, sport is not the only area of activity to benefit from the desperate need of so many businesses for an injection of energy, charisma or different thinking. Music, the arts, television - all help to feed the monster. But sport is by far the most appealing, perhaps because firms are generally run by middle-aged men who still fantasise about what might have been on the sporting field.

But it is vital that the admiration does not lead to emulation. Yes, Ellen MacArthur is amazing. And her stories are fascinating. But the necessary ingredients of her success - stoicism, obsession, very high pain and boredom thresholds, and a solitary nature - are diametrically opposed to those of a successful business leader (except perhaps the boredom bit).

Business leaders need above all to inspire others, not themselves. They need to be flexible, not monomaniacal. And they need to be powerfully connected with the people around them. What's good for sport is not necessarily good for business.

Businesspeople have a bit of an inferiority complex. Their efforts to sell crisps, to market holidays or to audit accounts seem so dull compared to the glamour of running for Britain, conducting an orchestra or fighting a war. But the truth is that none of these activities would be possible were it not for the daily endeavours of the non-heroic many. The 2012 Olympics will be a boost for our national pride, and for the infrastructure of the capital. Plenty of companies will pack their corporate boxes, and a good time will be had by all. But let's not confuse the business with the entertainment.

Maybe the best lesson of all from sport is that it is a truly glorious thing to love what you do enough to risk a great deal for - even a safe career in medicine. My favourite sportsman of the moment is Mark Hatton, who fell off his luge - a tea-tray going 80 mph down the bobsleigh tunnel - but climbed back on to get a finishing time.

He came 35th out of 35. But he is made. Under the motto: Get Back On Your Sled, his career as a speaker, coach and consultant is about to begin.

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