Sport and leadership

Curium | 04 Mar 2019 | News | General News

“Some of the most cerebral people are some of the most stupid” Nuala Ryan reflects on what the world of sport can tell us about leadership

I listen to a podcast called Don’t Tell me the Score, which explores what sport can tell us about everyday life. I found the episode on leadership particularly insightful, not least as it’s a topic we teach at Curium.

In it, former England cricket captain Mike Brearley (now a successful psychoanalyst), gives his perspective on what it takes to be a brilliant leader and transform a team from good to great.

In his opinion, it all boils down to emotional intelligence, or EI: the capacity to engage with people and understand what makes them tick. Interestingly, he argues that IQ has very little to do with it, pointing out that some of the smartest people are “some of the most stupid”, in so far as they’re lacking as leaders.

The good news is that we can all develop our EI, and here are some of the ways Mike suggests we do this:

  1. Understand emotions. Many of us are emotionally curious, in that we can describe emotions or are fascinated by them at an intellectual level, but good leaders will truly understand emotions, what drives them and how they manifest.
  2. Tough love. Great leaders need what Mike describes as two hands: one to act supportively to colleagues in difficulty, to mentor and to coach, and the other to challenge negative behaviours such as aggression, rivalry or bitterness.
  3. Know your limits. In other words, avoid over-responsibility. This particularly struck a chord, as I’m sometimes guilty of thinking that successes or failures of my team depend on me alone. In fact, a colleague said to me the other day, “why is it that you think it won’t get done if you don’t do it yourself?”, which, while it stung a little, was a useful mirror for my own beliefs. The point is that other people contribute to your team’s highs and lows, and through recognising that you are not solely responsible for this will will remove anxiety and create a more relaxed leadership style.
  4. Self-awareness. Understanding the root cause of why you act like you do in certain situations will not only help you take greater control of your own behaviour but will give you invaluable insight into why others behave as they do. This in turn will allow you to deal far more effectively with conflict. Mike shares a fascinating example from his time as England’s cricket captain, when a certain bowler used to argue with his suggestions and look at him like his ideas were stupid. Mike’s response was to get angry and fight back (as he points out, when faced with conflict our instinct is to assume that the other person is hostile, while we are sane and rational). He says he could have resolved this fractious situation more effectively had he realised both the drivers for the bowler’s behaviour: that he was more insecure than he made out, and his own behaviour: that he was eager to avoid looking stupid.
  5. Avoid projection. This can happen without self-awareness, and is where we see in other people something we don’t like in ourselves. He points to the adage that those who spot selfishness in others are often the most selfish themselves. The problem with this is that, without being alert to the behaviour in ourselves, we can start to imagine behaviours in others that aren’t necessarily real and can create situations that aren’t there, but for our projected beliefs.

For those who are into audio learning, the podcast is well worth a listen (in fact, these insights were covered in the first 20 minutes alone). And for those who are interested in translating these types of insights into reality, come and experience TetraMap®. TetraMap is a powerful behavioural tool we teach at Curium, which can have a profound effect on leadership success and, in my experience, life outside the workplace as well.

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