Leadership Traits to Cultivate in 2020: How Attributes of Athletes Transfer to Business

Leadership Traits to Cultivate in 2020: How Attributes of Athletes Transfer to Business

By Veronica Perry, reporter
5-minute read

In short: 

  • Research reveals a link between women who played competitive sports and those who make it into executive roles in the business world. 

  • The traits of both groups -- especially of athletes-turned-execs -- provides a roadmap for anyone looking to boost their personal leadership skills this year.

  • These traits include enthusiasm for your job, an ability to respect the unique perspectives of your team and one counterintuitive outlook on failure.


It takes dedication, practice and skill to go the distance in both athletics and business. With increased focus and research on the similarities of the two worlds, the business domain is seeing the benefits of an employee with a background in sports, especially women. 

In November 2019, the Japan America Society hosted a Women’s Leadership Conference that focused on traits of athletes that cross over into the business realm. 

During her keynote speech, Janelle Susaki, Ernst & Young’s (EY) head of gender marketing, referenced a 2014 EY survey of female executives, conducted with the Women Athletes Business Network and espnW, in which 74% of respondents said participation or a background in sports helps accelerate leadership and career potential. Another EY study found that 94% of women in C-level positions played sports in their youth, and 80% of female Fortune 500 executives played competitive sports. 

👉 80% of female Fortune 500 execs played competitive sports. And overall, 74% of female execs said a background in sports helped accelerate their career potential.

Susaki herself trained as a competitive gymnast for over a decade and commented that the skills she learned through the sport could not be taught in the classroom. 

“Gymnastics helped build my confidence [and] work ethic [and helped me to] focus on results and strive for success. It also taught me to face and overcome challenges and setbacks. Most importantly, it taught me to never give up,” Susaki said. 

Other speakers at the conference with notable sports backgrounds included:

  • Christine Simmons, former COO of the Los Angeles Sparks and current COO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 

  • Kelly Inouye-Perez, head coach of championship-winning UCLA softball

  • Oscar Delgado, former Olympic athlete and vice president of partnerships and events at the LA84 Foundation, which supports youth sports

  • David Hendley, former professional football player and vice president of sales at American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, conference speakers discussed the specific qualities exemplified by both business leaders and successful athletes. Honing the traits below in 2020 can sharpen your leadership skills, whether you’ve played sports before or not. 


1. Passion 

Exhibiting passion for the work that you do helps to provide you and your team with the energy needed to complete the most mundane tasks, whether it’s getting up each morning for a two mile run or inputting new client data into a spreadsheet. Not every responsibility in business is going to be fun or exciting, but maintaining an enthusiastic attitude about the bigger picture will make tedious work worthwhile.  

“You have to be passionate about what you're doing and what you believe in. That’s a crucial component of inspiring others and moving forward with your vision,” Hendley said. 

“Everyone defines success differently,” Inouye-Perez added. “But you have to have a vision statement and understand the process of how to execute on a day-to-day level, which aligns with the business world and sports.” 


2. Collaboration 

It’s no surprise (hopefully) that it takes a team to succeed. The ability to collaborate with people who are different from you, yet working towards the same goal, is an essential skill in business and athletics.  According to a 2017 study on diversity and decision-making, inclusive teams make better decisions up to 87% of the time, and diverse teams deliver 60% better results. 

It’s important to remember, though, that team members do not always agree and there will be conflict when collaborating with others. 

As Inouye-Perez said, “We all need to know that we won't agree on everything, but we have to focus on and figure out how we will flex with each other to meet in the middle. … Being the best version of yourself is operating in your strength zone, but working as a team requires you to also operate outside of your comfort zone.”  

Getting out of your comfort zone is critical in sports and business, per UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez.


3. A competitive spirit 

Each speaker noted that success comes from waking up every day with an insatiable drive to achieve your goals, no matter how big or small, whether it’s practicing an existing athletic skill or launching a new business development strategy. 

“You don't have to be an athlete to possess a competitive spirit,” Hendley said. “Many leaders in business have competitive spirits. They are always fighting and pushing themselves to be greater, but they also possess the skill to push others to be greater, too. That is the key -- to get others to have that type of fight to want to be the best.”


4. Discipline 

According to Delgado, the biggest determinants of success are daily behaviors and routines

“The most successful people are disciplined in their behavior, from personal health to finances to business,” he said. “When you have strong habits day in and day out, they prepare you to take on any obstacle.”


5. Grit and resilience  

According to Inouye-Perez, winning business leaders and athletes push through momentary challenges out of commitment to a vision for the future.

“Being great, hard-working or successful does not mean that your are going to continue [winning],” she added, “but those that are the most successful are those that know how to set goals and have the vision to achieve something that is greater than where they are now, despite challenges that will arise.”  

Female leaders at November's conference include Christine Simmons, former COO of the L.A. Sparks.


6. Positive response to failure 

According to Hendley, failure is a key component to achieving greatness. It is the basis of personal development.

“If you're not failing, you’re staying within the status quo and not pushing yourself hard enough,” Inouye-Perez added. 

“Your ability to manage failure is critical to growth,” she continued. “Response to failure separates the good from the great, and adversity should bring out your best in the long run because the harder it is, the greater the reward.” 


7. A desire to influence for good

Influence is different than leadership, although both have their place in sports and business. Inouye-Perez said influence is more powerful than leadership because it’s what creates a positive culture

Hendly noted the attributes of an athletic leader, which also fit snugly into business. 

“To be a good leader, you have to inspire your team to play at their highest potential -- that comes from influence,” he said. “As a leader, you are trying to get your team to be at the highest level to work to their greatest potential. Those are the successful leaders on and off the field.”

Simmons noted that being a leader doesn’t require a C in your title. 

“It’s knowing the difference between confidence and ego, leading through service to others with empathy and cultivating emotional intelligence to pick up on nuances that will ultimately help you succeed,” she said.

You needn’t be a former athlete to cultivate those winning traits. Get out there and win!

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