A women's short track speed skating race at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images.

Three Questions: Dr. Heidi Brooks on What Olympic Athletes Can Teach Us about Leadership

Yale SOM’s Heidi Brooks, an expert on leadership and a passionate amateur athlete, has been watching the Winter Olympics and reflecting on what it takes to succeed at the highest levels in sports. We asked her what business leaders can learn from top athletes. 

How has your own participation in sports influenced your thinking on leadership and management? 

Although I am not an Olympic athlete, early positive experiences in soccer, basketball, and lacrosse cemented an identity for me as an athlete. In more recent years, I have spent some wonderful time on the tennis court. Some of the enduring lessons are a learning mindset; a focus on winning (and being able to manage losing); moving through the field/life with a calm center; and creating powerful team dynamics.

After about 10 years of teaching at Yale SOM, I looked around at a team of amazing people who coach and facilitate the student learning experience in my courses and recognized that a high percentage of the coaches and facilitators are serious athletes or artists. I am fascinated by the mindset similarity between athletic or artistic pursuits that require continued practice and the lifelong pursuit of leadership effectiveness. Great athletes are great learners. They have to be in order to master high-level techniques and be able to produce under demanding and dynamic conditions. The same goes for great leadership. 

What can business leaders learn from leaders in the sports world?

During the Olympics, we have the chance to witness the world’s greatest athletes at work: these incredible subject-matter experts trying their best to make history. Here are some lessons for business leaders—many of whom also have aspirations to become (or to remain) best in class:

  • Honoring your health and well-being is fundamental to your ability to do anything else. Many executives and employees go from one intense project directly to another with little time to recuperate and recover (never mind celebrate or acknowledge completion).
  • Cultivate an environment and attitude of constant development. As Carol Dweck discusses in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in a growth mindset, we believe that people can learn, that persistence pays off, and that feedback is a pathway toward improvement rather than an exposé of personal weakness.
  • “Keep playing no matter what” is the powerful sentiment expressed by Serena Williams in her recent Gatorade ad. Persistence can be a habit that spills over into life; if you can keep at it when all others would lose faith, you may also have the courage and perseverance to dig into tough, complex business problems while maintaining high standards and integrity.
  • Play your game. While you may respect and learn from the style of another person, at the end of the day, you have to use what you bring–your skills, strengths and liabilities. Learn to play and maximize your own best game.
  • Know when to stretch yourself and take risks, and when to play it safe. Your own fear/courage is not always the best metric, so you need to develop a perspective that keeps you balanced and clear-headed when fear might suggest that you need to protect yourself.

How should business leaders start using the lessons and mindsets of the elite athlete?

If you have a history of practicing sport or anything that requires refining skill over time (arts certainly follow the same patterns of refining skill through deliberate focus, training, and repetition), you may find that intentional leadership development feels familiar and rewarding. Try some of the following approaches to increase or accelerate your leadership effectiveness:

  • Work smarter, not harder: take a meta-cognitive approach (in other words, think about how you are thinking) to understand where your time and attention are going. Aim to realign the way you are spending your time and attention so that you can be more effective. Keep in mind that how you do something may be more important than what you are doing.
  • After-action reviews: watch the tape! Reflection matters—go back over your day, week, year, or at least your last meeting. Reflect by yourself or, even better, in the company of others, about what worked and what didn’t work. Hold yourselves ruthlessly accountable to excellence.
  • Reduce unproductive stress for yourself and your direct reports. Where possible, begin to think about and use stress as a motivator for peak performance. (See “Making Mindset Matter,” by Alia Crum et al.)
  • Make sure your team dynamics facilitate learning and reinforce intentionality over time. A good learning community is a huge multiplier for the willing learner (and so much fun).
  • Enjoy! Identify people who genuinely love to learn, and spend time with them discussing your personal learning and practices that support it.
Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behavior