How the Locker Room is Exactly Like the Boardroom


As the global economy continues to slowly rebound, an organization's performance is increasingly determined by the ability of its leadership to increase productivity. Analysis of successful organizations makes apparent the salient differences between organizations with incompetent leadership, and flawed organizational structures.

As a former athlete, I always find myself viewing group activities through the prism of sports. Like any large organization, a football team is broken up into several distinct units reporting to specific position coaches who report to either the offensive or defensive coordinator, who themselves must report to the head coach who is responsible to an athletic director, general manager, or team owner. This structure allows for a head coach to easily pinpoint and address weaknesses. Like a well coached team, well run organizations tend to outperform organizations with ineffective management structures that allow inefficiencies to go unchecked and lack effective control over employees.

Before disbanding its football team in 1939, the University of Chicago fielded some of the best collegiate football teams of the early 20th century. Headed by legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, The University of Chicago Maroons introduced many innovative plays and techniques to the game of football that remain prevalent today. Stagg’s leadership allowed for the development of best practices for the then-young game of football that gave his team an edge against opponents. In contrast, U of Chicago’s northern neighbor Northwestern University has the notorious distinction of fielding one of the least successful college football teams in history. Poor performance during the 1970s and 80s can most likely be attributed to the school administration’s indifference to athletics at the academically prestigious private university that competes athletically with much larger state funded institutions. The performance of professional organizations can also be attributed to the competence and assiduousness of upper management. A recent survey administered to CIA personnel shows that poor management is negatively affecting productivity and talent retention. Besides helping to develop best practices for an organization or industry, effective management also helps foster creativity and innovation.

When a bad play call is the deciding factor in a game, the head coach usually receives the brunt of the blame. Individual players also deserve and receive criticism for their poor play, but blame for a team's continually weak performance usually falls on the people in charge of preparing them for competition. Like a defensive coordinator that substitutes in larger slower linebackers instead of extra defensive backs when the opponent obviously needs to pass for a crucial first down, organizations that are unable to adequately adjust to changing market conditions and consumer demand are destined for failure. Like a coach who perennially fields an undisciplined losing team, an organization staffed with unproductive under-performing employees most likely is headed by ineffectual management who lack the resources or attributes to effectively train and evaluate performance. Being able to pinpoint and address weaknesses within an organization and holding both the higher-ups and rank-and-file accountable are two crucial aspects of a well-run organization. 

Some of the most effective coaches at any level are able to get their players to "buy in" into a system or game plan. They are able to do this by way of their personality, ability to simplify complex concepts, and by making practice and games enjoyable experiences. Having happy and motivated employees improves productivity, which not only benefits a company, but also the people they serve. The importance of increasing efficiency and productivity manifests itself when one considers the societal benefits of reducing costs for such industries as health care, education, and public services. Effective managers are able to develop ways to keep individuals motivated and excited about performing their duties on a daily basis. 

Leadership cannot correct all of an organization's problems. A well coached team is still only as good as the talent on the roster and can sometimes make up for what it lacks in talent with hard work, determination, and discipline. Similarly, a well-managed organization is still constrained by the skills and knowledge base of its employees. That's why the ability to develop talent is such a crucial aspect of long-term success. My experience playing organized team sports has taught me how to effectively work with others to accomplish a common goal. In order to reach any goal, everyone involved must focus on their assigned task. This process is made easier by the presence of qualified leadership able to provide guidance and encouragement.