Sir Steve Redgrave: Leadership In Sport And Business



For many years now the worlds of sport and business have been linked. At first it was through sponsorship, but now, as more and more ex-professional sports men and women make the transition from sport to a career in business, we are learning that skills honed in sporting environments are hugely valuable in business. None more so than leadership skills. 

But what is leadership? Are leaders born or are they nurtured through circumstance? Should one lead by example or through their words? These are all questions that can, depending on who you ask, prompt very different answers, as all leaders are different.One of British sport’s most iconic leaders of recent years is five time Olympic gold medalist, Sir Steve Redgrave. 

We caught up with the man who himself now applies the skills he learnt in the boat to a business context through the work he does with Athlete Career Transition (ACT).

What is Leadership to you?

In a sporting context it's leading by example. It's showing everybody that's involved in the group that everyone is virtually equal, and that everyone has got to stand up and do their bit. Within that, if everyone is doing that process then the unit is going to be stronger for it. 

In your opinion, should leaders lead by through their actions or their words?

I think that if you look at a rowing environment, because the role you do is very similar - the process of rowing is that everybody is doing exactly the same movements at exactly the same time, and that is part of the sport in someways - it's being able to coordinate and do it together. So your experienced athletes are going to have more knowledge from that process because they have done it more often, and thus have the potential to feed more back into the group.

But then you also have young people coming in with something to offer. Everything always moves on, so you have to take people's views of what they put in to the whole process. Just because you may be a first year international, that doesn't make it that they don't know everything about moving a boat, or moving a boat faster.

So leading by actions is important, but also by words. What we used to have was a system where we would have a briefing before each water-based training session, and then a de-brief at the end. They were both conducted on an equal basis - if you've got a little bit more status I suppose you're given the opportunity to guide that process a little bit more. But everybody had an equal footing to get their input into that environment.

Is it down to a captain then, to make newcomers feel like they have an equal voice?

It depends on the group itself. If you take our Sydney four, James Cracknell used to get very frustrated with almost every training session we did. So when we did a debrief, having put the boat back onto the rack he would be first to speak as he had to get off his chest the frustrations he had. It would then go through the group, where our coach would join us.

We didn't really have a captain as such, and I suppose if we did have a captain I would have been classed as that person, but in a way I wanted that group to run and evolve was that everybody was there on an equal footing and we are all trying to achieve the same thing. As long as everyone was having their say and having their input, then I think that works well as a unit. James would be the first to speak, Matthew and I would be more a case of sometimes we would speak, sometimes we wouldn't. Tim would be the last to speak normally, he was a very laid back character, whereas James is very negative on his views, Tim was always very positive. So you would be leading the discusion taking on the low points, but walking away with the positives, as well.

Do leaders grow out of circumstance, or are they born?

I think you can be nurtured into the role. I wouldn't have classed myself as a born leader. I wouldn't have said “boo” to a goose in my early days. Then when you build up not just your confidence, but your ability, some very, very quiet people tend to make more of a verbal role once they’re in the thickness of competitive sport. Somebody out of the boat who might hide themselves away, sometimes can be very motivating and a leadership type of person due to their passion and desire of the common goal and what they are trying to get out of the unit.

By transferring that through to business, I feel that everybody has a role to play and views on where things should move forward. I think in a business structure you tend to have more layers of management, so people who are supposed to be guiding influences, the better ones at that have an open door policy. That will involve discussion, taking on people's views who may be very novice in the set up.

Can leaders from the sporting world be good leaders in a business context?

The skills you learn in the sporting world are very relevant in the business world, it is just about transferring them over. At the end of the day you are a part of a team in both worlds and it is about leaders in business helping to nurture those who have come in from a professional sporting world and the two parties learning from each other. 

I think the two are very similar; the drive, the determination, the passion. I think there is a lot of planning, there is a lot of structure involved. If you arrive without that passion, without that desire, without that focus, without that bloody mindedness, you are not going to achieve, or are unlikely to achieve, what you set out to do. It takes hard work and determination to achieve, and that's the same with business.

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