What makes an exceptional leader? Those who can turn around a company fortune against almost unthinkable odds? Or spot an opportunity that would be unapparent to most? I am tempted to point to the fictional character of Bobby Axelrod in the hit TV drama Billions but this is a serious question that has been put forward by a number of business researchers, social scientists and psychologists over the years.
Most recently we have had the publication of Athletic CEOs: Leadership in Turbulent Times . The authors of this book explore the leadership models of some exceptional leaders and compare their approach to running businesses with that of elite athletes and their drive to succeed in their respective sports. A little too obvious – maybe? However, the calibre of their research subjects does lend some serious credibility to their findings.
The authors focused on outstanding performers from Russia, in very difficult socio, political and economic circumstances:
- Herman Gref, CEO and Chairman of the Executive Board of the largest Russian bank Sberbank. He has transformed Sberbank into a dynamic digital company
- Vitaly Saveliev, CEO and Chairman of the Management Board of Aeroflot - Under Vitaly Saveliev’s leadership, (majority) Russian owned Aeroflot has become the most valuable airline brand in the world and the most efficient in Europe.
- Alexander Dyukov, CEO of Gazprom Neft since 2007, has turned a vertically integrated oil company into the most dynamic energy company in Russia through digital innovation.
- Eugene Kaspersky built Kaspersky Lab into a household brand across the world, supplying anti-virus protection to more than 400 million people in 200 countries.
The authors of this book identify shared characteristics from their interviews with these leaders and others like them, with those of outstanding athletes and have coined the term ‘athletic leaders’. They argue that key attributes and experiences are shared by both world-class athletes and athletic leaders and have divided these characteristics into three main areas: formative experiences, mental toughness and mental adaptability.
The authors found that the subjects of their research all practised competitive sports in their youth. In addition to this, they changed companies and industries on their journey to becoming outstanding leaders. They also occupied leadership positions at a fairly early age (all heading up either companies or major divisions in their late twenties) and faced adversity as leaders of important projects. The authors believe that these formative experiences gave them a belief in their own ability just as athletes do, so that difficult tasks become challenges rather than threats.
Sir Jackie Stewart was better known for being a Formula1 champion but some of you may not be aware that he was also a crack shot, winning national titles as a ‘dead-eye trap shooter' and came within one shot of qualifying for the Olympic Games. His quote serves to support their theory of adverse formative experiences:
“By the time I had got there (F1), I had had the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat with my Olympic experience. I had been through all of the absolute necessity for total focus, for total commitment”
Like athletes, athletic leaders stay focused on the goal. Motivated more by intrinsic forces: a passion for their business, the desire to succeed, to be the best. Elite athletes know that pushing yourself past the pain barrier is exactly what you need to do to be successful, and win. Who can forget Tiger Woods, completing 92 holes with a broken leg in the 2008 US Open, or Derek Redmond being helped over the line at the 1992 Olympics, with a torn hamstring?
Athletic leaders have mental toughness in spades, despite having copious demands on their time, they stay focused on their goals with demanding standards of behaviour.
Athletic leaders demonstrate high levels of flexibility in goal-setting and strategic thinking. According to the research, they demonstrate a huge passion for learning in relation to their business, leadership projects and the world around them.
Elite athletes have to take the same approach; adapting their training schedules and behaviours to prepare for different events and different conditions. Mitigating against unusual circumstances such as the outbreak of the Norovirus at the London 2017 Olympics or training for events at high altitude. They will employ new training coaches and support personnel if they think they are losing one ounce of advantage over their opponents.
Herman Gref is widely reported to read a vast array of books each year and regularly goes to Silicon Valley to explore business and technology innovation. Athletic leaders have an innate and proactive curiosity that keeps their knowledge up to date and relevant. Vitaly Saveeliev entered the field of aviation at the age of 56, without any insider knowledge. He started a weekly workshop with consultants and after six months had reached the same standard as veteran Aeroflot executives. Today other airline CEOs seek his advice on industry matters.
Adjusting Mental Models
Adaptability allows athletic CEOs to adjust their business mentality – employ a paradigm shift to their way of thinking and working, which acknowledges a changing world around them. In the same way, top athletes seem to have the ability to move from one sport to another and achieve similar successes. Consider Mo Farah continuing his successful track career to marathon running and Dave Winfield in the baseball Hall of Fame, who was drafted by four teams in three different sports; Baseball, Basketball and Football!
The authors argue that most CEOs are ‘one trick ponies’ who have an inflexible mental model which becomes a handicap when the world moves ahead. Consider the recent demise of several high street brands such as BHS and Austin Reed and more recently New Look. American owned Blockbuster, once the largest video rental chain in the world, filed for bankruptcy in 2010, when it was unable to transition towards a digital model. In 2000, Netflix approached Blockbuster with an offer to sell their company to Blockbuster for $50 million US Dollars. Blockbuster's CEO, was not interested in the offer because he thought it was a "very small niche business" and it was losing money at the time. As of July 2017, Netflix had 103.95 million subscribers worldwide and a revenue of $8.8bn US Dollars.
All have had their troubles in part, blamed on a failure to seize digital opportunities as quickly as some of their competitors.
Are exceptional leaders genetically programmed to excel, with a capacity for mental toughness and agility? Or do they share formative experiences that give them a winning mentality? Either way, there are lessons to be learnt here. As leaders striving for excellence, we need to remain focused on our goals, yet still have the mental agility to be responsive to complex change in shifting landscapes.
 Anthem Press, 2018, Athletic CEOs: Leadership in Turbulent Times: formative experience, mental toughness, and mental adaptability. By S. Shekshnia, V Zagieva and A. Ulanovsky