Boundless Leadership: Why sports is the worst analogy for leadership

Sports teams: perhaps the biggest cliché for modeling leadership success. Plus, it is so far from reality it’s painful! It’s not sports, but adventure we should emulate.

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There is much to be learned from sports teams: communication, commitment, persistence, mindset, celebrating achievement. And much more.

When it comes to leadership, it’s a false premise and it bugs the crap out of me.

Here’s why sports suck when it comes to the leadership analogy:

  1. Firstly, sports games have a finite time frame.

In sports, there is a start time, a finish time, and then you go home. Even in the endless game of cricket, eventually they too go home. It’s a game bound by rules, with a clear ending.

In leadership, the game is never, ever done. It is boundless. There are always problems to solve, things to contribute. It’s not about winning, it’s about being better, making a bigger difference.

  1. Sports have fans and a crowd to watch your performance.

When was the last time you got cheered for a leadership decision? Who is gathering in stadiums, buying beers, and wearing your team colours? That’s right – no one. Leadership is a lonely experience where you celebrate everyone’s achievements except your own. Where you have both responsibility and accountability for the success – or failure – of the enterprise. And the consequences are far reaching for people’s lives. If you don’t score the winning goal on the football field, who cares? It’s just a game.

  1. Games have clear outcomes: win, lose, or tie.

In leadership, there is only commitment. There is do, or do not. There is make a difference, be better than yesterday, and keep on going.

Leadership is an infinite game, sports is a finite one. So says James Carse in one of the most inspiring and powerful books I have read in the last 12 months: Finite and Infinite Games. Simon Sinek is also working on his own version of finite and infinte games in business.

Here’s the thing. Work that matters, experiences that matter, need us to show up every day, day after day, committed to a game where the rules are vague, the parameters loose, the horizon vague.

What we need is not a sports mentality, but an adventure mentality.

We need the courage to go every day into the unknown, focused only on the inner compass of our purpose and what matters most to us. We need to band together in the face of unknown dangers, of strange new landscapes, and work our way through the challenges together.

There will be no one cheering. There will be no trophies. There will only be the knowledge that we tried our best, that we dared, and that we did it together, in service to making the world a better place than when we found it.

That’s the kind of game I want to play: the boundless game of adventure. You?


Zoë is on a mission to encourage big thinkers with big hearts to make a big difference. She is passionate about showing leaders how to challenge limitations so they can live and lead with boundless energy, confidence, and conviction. With over 30 years experience developing leaders, she has published three books: Composure: How Centered Leaders Make the Biggest Impact, Moments: Leadership when it matters most, and Loyalty: Stop unwanted staff turnover, boost engagement, and create lifelong advocates. These are available here –

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