Why former athletes make great business leaders

What's the recipe for a great business leader? In my experience with clients and senior executives, I’ve found the usual ingredients are often a combination of some core attributes and principles: ambition, self-discipline, determination, focus, vision and enthusiasm. This combination isn't exclusive to career success though. Winning athletes hold similar qualities. And there is an increasing interest from the business world to learn from the experience of top sports stars and their trainers, even going some way to explain why many former elite athletes have successful second careers in business. What is this link between top athletes and great business leaders? Let’s look more closely at some of the overlapping qualities…


It seems that sport is an effective training ground for these key ingredients in success, perhaps more than most business environments. Take self-discipline as an example – training requires turning up in all weather, waking up hours before sunrise (I endured 5 am wake up calls for eight years to train for swimming) and other gruelling regimes prescribed by coaches and carried out by disciplined individuals. These regimes are not easy, but they help build strength, confidence and morale, and ultimately they encourage determination.

A Competitive Edge

Many sportspeople who become successful in business believe that the competition in sports prepared them for the business world. It's this learned competitive edge that pushes them past their peers to the top. As well, a sports background helps them to manage winning and losing - the inevitable ups and downs of business. Perhaps most importantly, it equips them with the skills to engage with others and develop effective relationships.


Most skills honed through sports fall into two categories – self-management and teamwork. The former is gleaned through almost any activity in which the athlete sets goals and seeks to improve in a disciplined manner. This isn’t always as a result of team sports either. It can evolve from a solitary sporting activity – think Andy Murray or Usain Bolt.


When it comes to teamwork, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts! A leader can’t make it on their own, they must attract the right people to help them reach their goals. One person cannot do everything to ensure business success, just as one person cannot win a rugby match. Teamwork on the rugby pitch is strategic and synergistic as it often is in the workforce.

A Strong Focus

A successful sportsperson has the ability to focus, shutting out distractions, yet remain flexible and shift focus when priorities require. Their vision is clear. Similarly, a great business leader has the ability to manage adrenaline. They might use a range of techniques, such as deep breathing, which allows them to balance themselves in the face of agitation that might otherwise interfere with a vital business decision. With all of the overlapping qualities, it’s easy to understand the growing trend in certain types of businesses to hire former top athletes. It certainly makes sense in a sales environment, where ambition, vision, drive and determination are key ingredients for success, and in communications, where effective relationship building is crucial.

Need help finding a top athlete for your business?

If you need help with your hiring strategy or are keen to discuss your options, don’t hesitate to get in touch for a confidential discussion. Our consultants are specialist, industry- savvy professionals who know their fields inside-out. We can help you identify who and what you need, and we have the contacts to source the best-fitting candidates for you.

Posted on 21.01.2016

Related: Leadership Lessons with... Waleed Bin Huzaim, Director of Relations & Protocol - Government Entity - Saudi Arabia

We spoke with Waleed Bin Huzaim, Director of Relations & Protocol – Government Entity – Saudi Arabia about the significant trends shaping corporate communication in 2024, the transformative impact of AI, and the ESG focus for communications professionals.

Read more

Related: Leadership Lessons with... Belma Ambrose, Managing Director of Global Councel's Delivery team

Explore AI trends, leadership lessons, and global politics in 2024 with Belma Ambrose, MD of Global Councel. Gain insights on industry changes and the impact of the upcoming US election.

Read more

Related: Leadership Lessons with... Barry Johnston, Founding Partner and COO of Purpose Union

We spoke with Barry Johnston, Founding Partner and COO of Purpose Union about purpose-driven work, communications and advocacy sector.

Read more

Post your comments

Please leave this field empty:

Speak to a consultant