It’s been a great summer for sports fans – tennis, cricket, cycling, golf and racing, with lots more to come. Unfortunately, I’m not a big sports fan, so to help me cope, I started thinking about how sporting success is often used as a metaphor for business success. Success in sport is assumed to have parallels with success in business – indeed, many professional sports players re-invent themselves as after-dinner motivational speakers, telling stories about how they overcame huge personal barriers to succeed in their chosen sport.  Companies will pay huge sums to hear top sportsmen and women talk at conferences on how they achieved greatness, often backed by training videos and books that draw parallels between sport and achieving business success.


But are sports metaphors really so useful? I saw a quote recently from Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet: “Talent without commitment means nothing”.  At first, I really liked this and thought it was insightful and profound (I almost Tweeted it); however, I stopped myself after a few moments as I realised that although the basic idea is interesting, ultimately it’s not that much use. If it told me how Usain Bolt achieved such a high level of commitment and combined it with his amazing talent, I could do something useful with it, but as it is, it's just a cute soundbite. We might as well just say “If you’re not that interested in sport, you’ll never make the football team”.  You don't have to look far for these types of quotations, most of which are simply idle aphorisms:

Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing” (Henry Saunders)

Losers quit when they’re tired; winners quit when they’ve won” (Anon)

If you train hard, you’ll not only be hard, you’ll be hard to beat” (Herschel Walker)

You get the idea.  My point is that most sporting metaphors boil down to a handful of simple ideas, most of which are either blindingly obvious or circular truths.  I’ve summarised the main points below to save you the trouble of interpreting them in future:

  • Learn the basic skills of your profession and keep developing them
  • Don’t give up, even if it gets really hard
  • Stay focused on what you’re doing
  • Learn from your mistakes (the more mistakes you make, the more talented you’ll become)

That’ll be thirty grand please, cash only, no cheques. The speakers on the after dinner circuit simply take these basic messages, add in some interesting sporting anecdotes, stretch it to 45 minutes and then like magic, everyone’s an expert. Of course, if it were that easy, we’d all be playing in the premier league or be the CEO of a multinational.

So, while sport can teach some useful lessons about business, I’m going to challenge perceived wisdom and argue (controversially) that business has far greater parallels with military tactics than sport.  In sport, the loser gets to pick themselves up, the slate is wiped clean and it starts all over again next season or in four years’ time.  It doesn’t really matter what happens in the end (sorry sports fans).  In business, as in war, there is no opportunity to do it all over again next season – if you bid for a contract and lose it, that's it, game over. No replay, no consolation prize, no penalty shoot-out. Unless it exists in a monopoly market, every business is surrounded by competitors eager to win each small battle, often creating casualties for the loser (although in sport, the losing team’s manager may be symbolically sacrificed as a sign to others).  Business mergers and takeovers also have their parallels in war, where one tribe invades the territory of another tribe and defeats as many people as possible, steals their land, forces them to speak their language and believe in the same things. Big companies take over little companies, generals are overthrown by the people they command.  The corporate take-over is simply the modern day equivalent of the invasion force, subsuming the enemy into OUR way of doing business. There are also parallels with the great military campaigns of history – companies deploy armies of testosterone-fuelled sales executives, travelling great distances to hunt down the prey, using skills carefully honed over a lifetime to ensure a kill/sale.  It’s too bad that 90% of the modern warrior’s time is spent stuck in a traffic jam on the M25, although I imagine foot soldiers in the middle ages spent most of their time fairly bored, marching from town to town waiting for each brutal battle to start. The only difference now is we have Travelodges and Little Chefs.

So let’s not get too carried away by the idea we might learn something from great sportsmen (except about sport).  We could probably learn more about business from reading ‘The Art of War’ or ‘The Prince’ than listening to Mo Farah over a quorn bolognese.

Having said all that, I’m going to contradict myself and share my very favourite sporting quotation by Bill Shankly, ex-Manager of Liverpool Football Club. I like it because while it's an exaggeration, at the same time it’s ironic and funny and it says something important about being passionate about what you do, using exaggeration to make the point (although Shankly probably meant it literally!)