July has been an absolute festival of sport in the Mochan-Larkin household. Our favourite sporting event of the year is the Tour de France and one of the best things about moving back to Brussels has been the ability to watch a stage the whole way through (we both had TdF jetlag every July in Australia, as we tried to stay up late enough to enjoy it!). The Tour passed through the Magnoac, the area where my parents live, with Castelnau Magnoac being a ville de depart. At the same time, the Women’s UEFA cup was starting, heading to its climax a week after the Tour finished. And while all that was going on, the Commonwealth Games started.
For someone interested in organisational behaviour, teams etc, it’s a bit hokey to focus on sporting teams and try to draw conclusions for other teams. Leadership training in Australia is littered with former AFL players. Non-work teams, whether sporting or, my preferred heuristic, theatrical, can have lessons for us, but can’t be simply lifted and put down in another context.
Sporting success often comes from beating someone else. That isn’t the experience we have in our daily work. That’s probably why cultural analogies – theatre companies, orchestras, jazz bands – are used a lot in the academic literature – the outcome isn’t a zero sum game. The Commonwealth Games have been interesting in that context, as the breaking up into Home Nations (Great Britain competing as England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man etc) means that people that are usually team mates are competing against each other. This is exacerbated by the fact that some sports are largely individual – swimming, for example. What does the team mean there?
I’ve also been interested in the willingness of very high-level athletes like Adam Peaty and Laura Kenny to talk about the difficulties of staying motivated. While we’re not all operating at the level of success of these two athletes, we can probably relate to finding it difficult at times to get ourselves going. The interview linked to above has the sentence “Mate, don’t let the swimming define you”. It reminds me of the evening when a very senior Commission official told me how much he regretted devoting his whole life to career advancement. As he approached the eve of his career, he looked back and wondered what it had all been for and he urged me to keep up the theatre as a strong counter-balance in my life. It’s noticeable that these reflections start for a lot of very successful people when they become parents – priorities change overnight as does the sense of what success is.
The sporting festival also reminds us that there are many different types of teams. In my role at Uniting, the Executive Leadership Team started each meeting with a reflection, done by a different individual each week. This time last year, I did one about the Tour de France. Cycling is interesting as a sport: if you don’t follow it at all, you might think it is individual (there is a single winner) but it is actually very much a team sport. A “domestique” will bury themselves to get their leader in a good position on a crucial (usually mountain…) stage. The team will control the peloton to get their sprinter to the best position for a sprint finish. There are multiple “prizes” on offer – do we go for a jersey? for GC (overall win)? for stage wins – and the team will make a decision before going in what their overall approach is. But the race will also have its say – injuries, early results, another team member finding better form can all mean that a team has to change its tactics. In cycling, you have to play the long game, have a vision and yet be ready to adapt it to circumstances.
So what does all this sporting activity tell me? Firstly, nothing more than I love watching most sports and that’s never going to change. Secondly, that success is intrinisc as well as extrinsic. I can define success for myself, taking in and balancing many different aspects of what I do. I look at my life now, my friends, my family, what I have done, what I have left to do, and I definitely feel like I’m standing on that podium.