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Lessons from Athletics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
January 26, 2016

paddockWe have just completed the collegiate football season, are near the end of professional football season and soon will have “March Madness” for the collegiate basketball season. Soon after, baseball season will begin. Managers can learn from watching sports and reading the sports page. Here are some more apparent lessons (there are many others):

1.    There is no alternative to talent, but passion is also important.

Outstanding teams depend on having a full roster of talented players. Those teams that rise to the top usually have a few extraordinary players. Most of those extraordinary players are great athletes. A handful of athletes are above-average but, more importantly, they are outstanding motivators. When they enter the game, they bring energy and a focus to the entire team that is more important than the particular skills they possess. Teams that come from behind usually rely on such motivating players. The lesson for managers: while it is important to recruit talent, it is equally important to recruit employees who have a passion for the work and who unsparingly share that passion.

2.    Sometimes, the greatest contribution to a win comes from an unexpected source.

Last year, a freshman player from Duke rallied his team and brought them from a deficit to win the NCAA basketball tournament. The coach knew, of course, of his players’ abilities, but he would have been hard-pressed to predict that a freshman would play such an important role. Similarly, the coach had worked so that a player was able to step up to the challenge. Likewise, public managers should prepare their employees to do more than “play their positions.” Are they prepared to be spokespeople in the event of a crisis, when information is needed and public information officials are not available?  Are they encouraged to use the information they gained in education and training?

3.    How you are evaluated may depend on how many times you are called upon to perform a skill.

The NFL season is relatively short; typically, teams only play other teams in their division twice (once at home, once away). By contrast the baseball season is long in terms of number of games; from spring training until playoffs in early fall, teams play other teams in their league many times. Therefore, if a football team wins at an away game, the odds are they will win the next time they meet that team at a home game. However, if a baseball team wins at an away game, they could win or lose the next time they meet. In baseball, the team that develops strength throughout many “work sessions” (games) ends up in the lead.

With so many games, different game strategies are tried. In public management, if you are building just one city hall, or conducting just one or two public participation forums, your performance is evaluated more carefully than if you are establishing six “mini city halls” throughout the city or regularly engaging the public in participatory activities. Closer scrutiny requires more intense planning and more careful monitoring.

4.    Just because no one is noticing, doesn’t mean you aren’t the best.

At the same time the college men hold their basketball tournament, the women also play in their tournament. The press coverage of the two tournaments is, at best, uneven. Yet anyone who watches the women’s tournament sees outstanding performances by trained athletes. Managers must support employees in achieving excellent performance and celebrate their accomplishments, even though, or especially when, agency leadership or the public do not pay attention to or recognize their efforts.

5.    It’s important to celebrate the achievement of expected (or hoped for) outcomes.

When a team makes a touchdown or scores a home run, there is great cheering from the crowd. But this is what professional athletes are paid to do. How different our workplaces might be if we behaved like team fans and cheered our employees’ achievements! There would be no cheering simply because they appeared at work and occupied a cubicle, but there would be cheering for well-written reports (“first downs” or “base hits”) or for completed projects (“touchdowns” or “home runs”).

The professional literature of organizational development and of leadership is filled with references to team building and team management. There are also lessons to be learned by reading the sports page. As managers we all can learn a great deal simply by watching and reading about athletic teams.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Lessons from Athletics

  1. Jeffrey Shelton Reply

    January 26, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    We must be careful not to take a comparison of management in pro sports versus other sectors too far. Football and baseball stars today are highly paid beyond the wildest dreams of those even 20 years ago. The exploits of many players off field receive almost as much publicity as those on field. Coachs administer punishments which are mild when those managers elsewhere would fire employees. The most talented young players, especially in football and basketblall, are groomed from ever earlier ages and provided with rewards that sometimes constitute bribery. Sports managers seem be foils for the front office and the profit motive. There are glimpses of the game here and there, yes, such as when a player rallies his mates at a critical time in a game. But overall do we really want managers to emulate pro sports?

  2. Joe Reply

    January 26, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    There is lots of wisdom in your comment that managers can learn a lot from sports.

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