Leadership is Leadership Wherever You Are

Welcome back to the second in our series of blogs exploring the worlds of sport and business and how they can both learn from each other when it comes to developing people and improving performance. 

As we discussed in the first blog, we believe there is one indisputable factor that drives the success, performance and effectiveness of people, teams, organisations and businesses and that is Communication. Communication is the key to absolutely everything we do, so it goes without saying that this should be a fundamental cornerstone of any strategy for developing and improving people. And not just for those who want or need to develop and improve themselves either, but also those who are facilitating the development and improvement of others. 

Communication is very broad though, therefore we have specified five key areas that we believe are woven together to make it up and crucially make the most difference in terms of developing people and improving performance. They are: Leadership, Coaching, Mindset, People and Team.

So, in this blog, we will be exploring the first of these and discussing the impact and role we believe leadership has in developing people and improving performance in Sport or Business.

What Leadership Isn’t

Rather than establishing what leadership is, lets instead start by determining what leadership isn’t. Now this is a question we ask people quite a lot, including those who are already in what would be deemed a leadership role or position, particularly during the leadership development courses and programmes that we deliver at Living Your Learning. Without fail, it’s a question, that when asked, is actually not at all easy to answer and it sparks a lot of debate. 

What’s important to establish first of all is that in our opinion, leadership is not and should not in any way be confused with management. For us they are very different, yet most people we come across put them very much in the same camp. And herein lies an issue straight away. Where people are concerned, ‘management’, in our opinion, should not come into it. Don’t get us wrong, we are not saying that management isn’t important, it is, and all leaders will need to be skillful at this, however, who actually wants to be ‘managed’? A process is managed, people aren’t. And we always ask a very simple question to illustrate this point and it’s this. Would you rather be ‘managed’ or ‘led’? Without fail, every single time, the answer we get is, “I’d rather be led”. But why is this?

Well, we think it’s got something to do with motivation and inspiration. We hear managers and leaders say all the time that they need to ‘motivate’ their people to do better. No, stop! Now don’t get mus wrong, it’s really important to understand what motivates people, and to maybe tap into it, however in our opinion, ‘motivating’ is the same as ‘managing’ and if a leader needs to ‘motivate’ someone, something is not quite right. Not to mention the fact that it’s not actually possible to motivate another person, because motivation comes from one place and one place only and that’s from within the person themselves. The best a leader can do is facilitate an environment where the individual feels able to motivate themselves. And this is where inspiration comes in to leadership, as that is a very different animal altogether. As the late Steve Jobs, someone who sparked much debate and sometimes controversy for his leadership style, once said:

“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do. Leadership is about inspiring people to do the things they never thought they could”.

Secondly, and equally as important for us is that leadership is not and never should be about a title or a rank. A title or a rank does not make someone a leader because in fact, anyone can be leader. Why? Because true leadership goes far beyond a title or rank and is about amazing behaviours and a conscious choice to demonstrate them, every waking minute of the day. And those that do happen to have the rank or title? Well, they must hold those as absolutely sacred, because with them comes massive responsibility for not only themselves, but other people. And because of that responsibility for other people, be it a team, a business, an organisation or even a military unit, it means that if the right outcome is to be achieved, they need to choose to display the right behaviours so that they can create an environment where their people perform to their absolute best and because they want to.

Creating an Environment of Success

So, if leadership is about creating an environment that allows people to succeed, what do they actually need to do? It’s actually quite straight forward, however in practice difficult to execute. Nonetheless, what the leader needs to do is to never, ever lose sight of a number of key areas and ensure they are alive and well at all times.

The first of these is ‘service’. Being a leader is about serving those being led. It is not about the leader themselves. In fact, the leaders that think leadership is all about them are on the fast boat to nowhere. Without great people around them, the leader is pretty much redundant, so they must do whatever they can to serve their people. This doesn’t mean doing things for them though, it means putting them first and making them feel truly valued. And that is a conscious choice of behaviour and something the great Simon Sinek illustrates in his book ‘Leaders Eat Last’.

The second attribute, ‘why’, is also absolutely crucial. Also a philosophy penned by Simon Sinek in his masterpiece ’Start with Why’, this is about the leader having a purpose or a cause that is clear for all to see and that they truly believe in, but with a key difference. The purpose or cause is not about money, fame, fortune or sponsorship deals. Instead, it’s the stuff that burns deep within, the fire and passion. It’s the reason for getting out of bed in the morning; it’s about the impact on other people and the world and not giving up on it, ever. It’s not about ‘what’ is being done, it’s about ‘why’, and then working out how, so that everything the leader and their people say and do is consistent with and serves as proof of their purpose and their ‘why’. It’s then about articulating it in a way that inspires people to be their very best and not because they have to. And whether it’s in a changing room or a board room, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. 

‘Psychological safety’ is the third. So rarely considered in our experience, yet so vitally important. But what is it? Psychological safety is about trust, it’s about being one’s self, contributing, taking ownership, making mistakes, learning, questioning and challenging and all without any fear whatsoever. 

Our fourth area is ‘the basics’ and ensuring that they are done right and done excellently, all the time, with no compromises. And we are not sure this one is possible without the first three areas we’ve just described either. In order to get the basics right, there has to be an environment that allows for it and it’s the first three areas that allow this. And if the leader gets the basics right and encourages and gets absolute excellence, then a solid foundation is built from where people can develop even further and improve.

And lastly, the final key area for us, and one that brings all the others together is role modelling. This means that the leader should be demonstrating, living and breathing the other four at all times, both ‘on and off the pitch’. How do they do this? Simple, amazing ‘Emotional Intelligence’, which in its simplest form means being extremely self-aware, being able to skillfully self-regulate one’s emotions, showing great empathy, having amazing motivation and phenomenal social skills.


Now, if a leader does these and does them well, and they are absolutely front and centre in everything they do, then how can they fail to have people who not only know what they are doing and why they are doing it, but are doing it to the very best of their abilities and achieving amazing results? And the proof that this stuff works? Just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, Gareth Southgate and Sir Dave Brailsford to name but a few. And by the way, Sir Alex and Sir Dave didn’t just build successful teams, they built successful organisations around the teams too. Because what these people are doing isn’t exclusive to the world of sport, they are exclusive to developing people and improving performance, because leadership is leadership, wherever you are.