Leadership is a Contact Sport

In a recent series of leadership development sessions we held for our 7,000 managers at MGM Resorts, a Leadership Summit (see my previous post), I helped facilitate breakout sessions on various leadership topics. I closed every session with the same simple message:

“Leadership is a contact sport, but leadership is also a team sport.”

In this post and my next post I will break down this statement. First let’s explore why leadership is a contact sport.

The classic “debate” about leadership skills is whether leadership skills are born in you or learned. Sort of a “nature versus nurture” concept. If born in you, then that means your leadership ABILITY is set either at birth (based on DNA) or in your early life based on other factors. Proponents of this belief would argue things like:

  •  Many leadership skills are intangible, and based on personality; things such as temperament, empathy, lack of fear speaking in public.
  • Other leadership skills are based on intelligence which is similarly in part set at birth or early; things such as the ability to synthesize complex information and think strategically.
  • We see differences in “leadership ability” at very young ages, like five year old children who somehow are the ones able to establish the jump rope game at school or are always followed by the other kids in terms of which video games the group will play.

I have often spoken about this “debate” to those around me at work, and I am very consistent: I believe leadership skills are almost entirely learned, or at least can be learned if not natively part of one’s personality, DNA, etc.

I believe, for example, that much of leadership is rooted in behaviors (see the work of Flip Flippen). And we know from psychology and other fields, that behaviors are not set in stone, and In fact do not have to reflect our actual beliefs. We see this in the ability to teach someone to speak publicly even if they feel internally as though they absolutely hate the idea of speaking publicly. We see this in leaders (and frankly all people) being able to modify and lengthen the time between an action and their reaction (overcoming or dampening their amygdala response).

My belief is that everyone can at least improve their leadership skills from their current state to a higher level of leadership. Maybe we can’t all be CEOs, or heads of state; but neither can we all be professional athletes or musicians, it doesn’t mean we can’t achieve a high level of skill in that particular field.

Therefore, leadership is a contact sport because your skill relies on how hard you are willing to work to get better. Just like pretty much anything else, it’s not a mysterious entity but a known quantity. To improve, you must learn the right skills and then practice those skills. I like to tell people they need to roll up their sleeves, put on their pads, get in the mud and bear down and focus. Not easy, not glamorous, but the results can make a huge difference for you, your team, your company.

The other thing to think about is how we build up leadership skills. Some skills are actually more “managerial” skills when viewed in isolation. Like how to interview to find the best hire, or managing a project, or how to manage a poor performer through written action plans, tough feedback and regular coaching and follow up. Skills like these when added up start to look a lot like empathy, the ability to drive performance, and mentorship. As a parallel and slightly more advanced path, specific higher level leadership skills like public speaking, strategic planning or coaching for career progression.

So now you know you CAN be a better leader, despite some who think it’s too late or you just “aren’t cut out for it.” But it is going to take your full effort and attention, and it won’t be easy.

In my next post, “Leadership is a team sport,” we will offer a way to help you make the process a little easier, by leveraging other people.



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