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We first learn leadership in the home. Next, it seeps in from what we experience at school, in community groups, choirs, dance class, sports and the like.

After parents, sports may leave the most lasting imprint. That used to be mostly with men. But as more women participate in sporting endeavours, they too are experiencing how collegiality, comradeship, and accepting defeat can be instilled in a competitive athletic environment. Given the sheer number of hours people spend watching televised sports as well as participating personally, the impact is huge.

Many managers and coaches in sports become folk heroes. They turn to the speaking circuit to pass on their managerial wisdom, often with an accompanying book, or a journalist teases out their wisdom for a business audience. Their quotes become legendary.

Here are two that have been sitting unused in my quotes file. “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters,” said legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul (Bear) Bryant. And from football coach and colour commentator John Madden: “The fewer rules a coach has, the fewer rules there are for players to break.”

Vince Lombardi authored perhaps the best known quote from sports: “Winning is everything.” Less known is that he later tried to withdraw, or modify his comment: “I wish to hell I’d never said the damned thing. I meant the effort ... I meant having a goal ... I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

Worshippers of Mr. Lombardi’s original quote would do well to consider John Wooden, whose philosophy coaching basketball at UCLA – where he won 80 per cent of the games compared to Mr. Lombardi’s 74-per-cent winning percentage – was to never mention winning a game or even to scout his opposition. He told his players that success was not winning but working hard, continually improving themselves, and playing their best in a game.

In his new book Coach, Justin Spizman looks at 180 of the top coaches over the years to see what lessons they offer for business leadership.

“Teachers and coaches shape our lives. You never forget your best teachers. You never forget your best coaches,” he writes. But even if you only saw them at work from afar in the stands or on the tube, or you connected through a motivational lecture or a book on their methods, they can be a powerful influence.

College swimming coach Bob Bowman says “the most important thing a coach does is to give feedback.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp talks about the relationship between leader and led this way: “I love to be something like a friend of the player, but not their best friend.”

Humorously, but sagely, former hockey executive Al Arbour said “coaching is aggravation. You give the players aggravation and they give it back.”

And New England Patriots general manager Bill Belichick stresses the importance of being yourself as a leader. After working for five different coaches and coaching staffs, he says he “became confident that there wasn’t just one style. I don’t try to be Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry, I try to be Bill Belichick.”

On building a team, long-time New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel said “finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.”

Mary Wise, head coach of the University of Florida’s women’s volleyball team, says “you want to coach to what your players are, not what they are not.” That means coaching to their strengths. Famed Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach heard the common wisdom that he should use his five best players but found he won with the five who fit best together. Former basketball coach Phil Jackson said “the strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” Former University of Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez observed that “everybody has a role on the team.” He said as leaders we need to define those roles and build on them and within them.

With many people seeking new jobs as the second year of the pandemic is closing, it may be worth considering Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s philosophy: “I’ve always felt like a guy where the grass is greener on my side of the fence.”

And here are seven other bits of advice from coaches that might help you at work:

  • “It’s nice to be great. It’s greater to be nice,” said high school cross-country and track coach Joe Newton.
  • “Hope and encouragement, especially hope, is probably one of the greatest things you can give another person,” said Las Vegas Aces basketball coach Becky Hammon.
  • “Problems are the price you pay for progress,” said Branch Rickey, the man who opened the door to Black players in major league baseball.
  • “Life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent how you respond to it,” said Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.
  • “Success isn’t measured by money or power or social rank. Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace,” said football coach Mike Ditka.
  • “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll.
  • “If you don’t second guess yourself, then you are not trying to get better,” said major leagues baseball manager Don Mattingly.

And finally, be humble about your own role as a leader. Fiery Baltimore Orioles coach Earl Weaver said “the job of arguing with the umpire belongs to the manager, because it won’t hurt the team if he gets thrown out of the game.”


  • If, like former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, your leadership was put to a vote of your colleagues, how would you fare?
  • The last major untapped frontier for talent is online video games, says recruiting specialist John Sullivan. Two-thirds of adults play video games; their average age is 31 years old; 45 per cent are female; and there are many gaming platforms where you can find and engage prospects.
  • Beware of the “angry Black woman” stereotype. A team of academics conducted two experiments and found participants were more likely to attribute the anger of Black female employees to internal characteristics, or her personality, rather than an inciting situation. This led to lower performance and leadership evaluations.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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