Want to be a leader? Military and sports analogies don’t fit.

This is going to sound a bit cranky, but I trust it will be taken in the spirit intended. I am tired of hearing leadership and team work lessons from the military, sports, or from people who have survived horrible disasters. The most notable example was when the business world latched onto Ernest Shakleton’s Arctic Expedition in the early 1900s. When his ship was crushed by shifting ice, Shakleton led his men to safety by surviving over a year in the Arctic. Make no mistake, this story is one of great heroism and self-sacrifice, but I challenge any manager to translate the lessons of Shakleton’s voyage to the daily task of keeping a working group motivated and productive.
The same holds true for lessons from the military. Again, make no mistake that I hold our men and women in the armed forces in the highest regard, but teamwork in the field is quite different than teamwork in the office. In the military, and for Shakleton, teamwork has one goal; stay alive. The laser focus of survival, of keeping every team member at your side and breathing, allows one to forget petty disagreements and personality clashes. That is neither the kind of workplace we should strive for, nor one that would produce lasting results.
Sports analogies are also worthless in the workplace. All you hear is how “teamwork helped them to victory.” Duh. We understand that if one basketball team has five players on the court and the other has one, the team will probably win. But the world of sports is not creative, it is authoritarian. The coach creates the plays, the players each have one part to play. Any company or organization that followed this plan would not last long.
First of all, fear—whether for one’s survival or one’s job—creates a stress that only allows the brain to focus on one thing, eliminating the fear. This kind of stress cannot be endured for long, which is why managers have learned not to use the threat of firing as a motivating tool. Also, stress does not enhance creativity, it kills it. Those under extreme stress are always encouraged by leaders to “rely on your training.” This advice is effective for the military and for sports, where individualism is harmful to the team. For a working group, however, this atmosphere would quickly suffocate the company.
No one in a military unit would dream of harming a teammate, just as everyone on Shakleton’s team knew that their survival depended on the survival of everyone. In sports, the loss of a valuable teammate is obvious. That attitude, however, is not as easily maintained in day-to-day working environments. In some cases, the loss of a teammate can actually be beneficial to someone looking for an opportunity.
So now you’re asking, “So what? Why the tirade?” Simple. As leaders we must stop wasting our time by looking for simple analogies—military, sports, survival—to teach how us to lead. We have to dig deeper and work harder. We have to read, research, and challenge; not simply accept advice from people who hold a title. We must truly understand how people are motivated, not just what makes them want to survive.

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