23 May 2019


We have all heard the expression: ‘business is a sport – not just a science’.

But we as managers can interpret this differently: the ability to rearrange projects and respond quickly to team requests already requires key behaviours and intuition – but does this break apart when crisis strikes? For most good managers, it does.

Mentorship is prolific amongst leading businesses, with an American Society for Training and Development study revealing that 71% of Fortune 500 companies have a form of formal corporate mentorship.

Being behaviorally tuned to cope with a delayed project or lost client contract is one thing. But the breakdown of a marriage or being fired from your own company are often where most managers say, ‘enough is enough’.

Most good managers are unable to turn this around. But a closer look at some of the most successful leaders shows that failure can be an asset – not just an obstacle to dodge.

But when it comes to developing true ‘real-time’ high-performance behaviours and coping physically under intense pressure, athletes to that line.

There are four key behavioural traits of leading athletes that managers can integrate into their management style. However, although some high-performance behavioural traits may only kick in after a severe life crisis, any manager can begin adopting two of these traits today.

Google’s simplified performance management system: 2016 Francisco S. homem de Mello


If there is one name that commanded the golf course in the early 2000s, it was Tiger Woods: riding high on this upward spiral, Tiger was carving out his life that seemed almost an unstoppable success.

But everyone has multiple priorities to juggle, and Tiger Woods was no exception. Confidence had morphed into arrogance, and focus had become ignorance: with his reputation changed over-night and his marriage brought to a halt, Tiger decided to put the foot on the brake.

‘Enough is enough’ to Tiger meant something different: he had to change, and showing leadership to his fans meant admitting failure – but then harnessing this negative energy as a source of growth. And after healing the relationship with his ex-wife and family, this commitment to reprogram past behaviour not only enabled Tiger to return to where he was before – his performance soared, making his failure the platform on which his career would explode.

However, if we move over to the business world, Steve Jobs almost teaches us the exact same lesson again: the 30-year-old inventor had birthed a computing revolution, but his lingering arrogance and reckless behaviour needed retuning – and being fired from his own board of directors was going to be the only way to do it.

For many managers, this would mark the peak and end of their career. But Steve Jobs knew that this was the feedback he needed to re-program his behaviour for the company to grow: by the time he was asked to return as CEO in 1997, he had undergone the personal change that would enable him to inspire the design teams and take the technology giant to the next level.

Additionally, a deeper look into this relationship between behavioural change as a leader and tangible factors such as productivity, the science is beginning to reveal that these leadership traits could be replicated by the average manager. A study from Kings College London (2016) indicates that a traumatic life event does temporarily raise a variety subconscious habits to the surface, which can either be tweaked or left the same: this indicates that there may be a temporary ‘window of opportunity’ for managers who have just experienced similar trauma in their personal life: behavioural tuning can be harnessed, enabling managers to bring these new behaviours back into the workplace.



Losing a position in a company or sports team is one thing – but losing a physical limb or succumbing to physical injury is often the line that few high-performance leaders are able to recover from. However, the behavioural changes and traits that we see from athletes that recover from a health scare may also be echoed by high-performance leaders in business and management.

In the case of Ben Hogan, the blow to this athlete’s career was completely outside of his control: the car accident experienced by his wife in 1949 would be enough for even the most successful leaders to take a break – and perhaps for good. But not for this athlete: yes, the athlete had experienced the trauma of a head-on collision – but to Hogan, this meant roaring back nine months later with gratitude for a life that would only propel his performance further.

With a record 64 wins and standing as the fourth most-successful golfer to-date, this example again reveals that harnessing trauma as a form of motivation may be a trait of leaders in front of the pack.

However, could this tendency to channel trauma into motivation also be found among leaders in the world of business?

In the case of James Dimon, we see the same pattern of behaviour again: discovering something as life-threatening as throat cancer while shaving on a workday morning would be a ‘game over’ scare for many managers. But despite the six days of chemotherapy and three years of uncertainty, ‘enough is enough’ for Jamie also had a slightly different meaning.

This traumatic revelation not only triggered a newfound motivation in this leader already-near retirement – but also re-invigorated the management style and leadership at JP Morgan: this trauma was not only channelled into better motivation and productivity for the organisation’s leader – but also set an example that inspires its management team below.



But the shock of major life mistakes or health emergencies do beg the question: do successful athletes and business leaders also plan their daily schedule so that ‘crunch time’ does not have to be inevitable?

We all know that ‘work-life balance’ is a key ingredient for staying productive in and out of the workplace: milestones of current projects need monitoring – but then so does the calorie-count on your fitness tracker. Instinctively, we all know that one life area can boost the other, and we find the same for both successful athletes and business leaders.

In the case of tennis tycoon Roger Federer, this deliberate separation of ‘down-time’ is taken much more seriously. Training can be intense, and hours can be long – but Roger mitigates this stress with strict boundaries that allow him to make the most of the little free time he has: smartphones are switched off, and relaxation-time is kept to very close friends and family. According to Roger, this tweak to his behaviour ensures that he is ‘all in’ whether he is at the tennis court or the dinner table; never a mix of the two.

But how about a CEO such as Steve Ballmer? Surely a ‘work-work’ ex-CEO sees maintaining a life balance a ‘box to check’ rather than something that can improve his work routine?

You might be surprised.

Yes, the executive does admit to intertwining business and personal relationships, having worked long hours to get Microsoft off the ground; the blur between work and personal is inevitable when a company is this passionate about birthing a new industry. However, a closer look at a billionaire CEO’s work schedule again reveals a similar pattern: long work nights remain, and close company colleagues are invited round for dinner – but Saturdays are family time only, with devices simply switched off altogether until Sunday afternoon.

The common thread is control. Whatever might change or need to be flexible for Steve Ballmer and Roger Federer, the free time that is integrated must follow the same criteria: a high-performance leader can allot times to be proactive with incoming meetings and requests – but never reactive in a way that distracts from the current focus.

Moreover, this relationship between productivity and planned events for communication is actually supported by research on management behaviour: The Economic Evidence Report (2016) that 35% of poor performance cases are reported by managers to be caused by an outside influence that could have been avoided in advance. This indicates that the tendency of high-performance leaders to allocate specific times for personal activities not only helps avoid ‘crisis scenarios’ later when under pressure – but also may also be behind more productive management decisions when at the office.



In addition to planning ‘downtime’ to maintain stability in and out of the workplace, high-performance business leaders are also mimicking another trait from the world of high-performance athletes: learning from fellow team-players.

And when we move over to business leaders such as Steve Ballmer and Jamie Dimon, we see this trait resurface again: successful executives are more included to learn from managers in completely different industries, and even from high-performance leaders such as athletes who might be taking advantage of behaviours that you can emulate.

Business is a sport – not a spreadsheet. And in today’s increasingly complex and competitive economy, most managers are waking up to the danger of simply keeping it ‘status quo’.

If you as a reader happen to be a manager within an organisation (See T&Cs: get in touch to check that you meet our criteria), you might actually be eligible to attend our invite-only events that make this synergy of leadership behaviours a reality.