A lot of us look at sports as a great diversion, pure entertainment that provides us with a distraction from our own lives. While that’s true for most people, these athletes, both on the court and in real life, provide some genuine inspiration for those looking to succeed in business. While triumphs on the court are a little different from those found in the business world, the parallels are surprisingly close, with two major factors that tie these worlds together: philanthropy and leadership. These lessons may well have any entrepreneur paying a little closer attention to the sports pages.
Giving back isn’t a fringe bonus of success: it’s an absolute necessity, and perhaps nobody understands that fact as well as elite athletes.
Maybe it’s because they come from such a diverse variety of backgrounds, but the charitable efforts of major pro athletes in America are pretty amazing. From Super Bowl champ Chris Long donating a year’s salary to education, to the countless causes boosted by LeBron James and his many philanthropic efforts, these top athletes set the example when it comes to successful people giving back.
I’ve been able to see this elite work ethic first hand through my charitable partnerships. Working with stars like Amare Stoudemire to improve the lives of others not only gives our projects a great PR boost, but reinforces the fact that people at the top, whether it’s the NBA or the wealth management business, have a responsibility to the rest of the world.
What struck me in working so closely with superstar athletes for a cause was the true generosity of spirit. Sure, it looks good in the press that they’re helping out, but I can say with certainty that reputation isn’t the reason that pro athletes give so much. I don’t know if it’s the fact that they are used to getting up early and giving their greatest effort, but they bring that same attitude to helping people on the days when nobody would blame them for staying home and relaxing.
For those of us in the entrepreneurial sphere, especially those just starting out, there’s a clear connection between the two worlds of athletics and enterprise. You’re climbing the business ranks to attain the kind of status these guys achieved through their athletic feats, and their generosity should stand as a reminder that with that status comes responsibility. For a successful entrepreneur, the onus to give back is an ever present one.
I want to tell you about another lesson that came from pro sports, one that’s stuck with me ever since childhood. To give you the full perspective, I’ll have to start this story in a cramped apartment in the Bronx.
As a lifelong New Yorker, I’ve been a Knicks fan for as long as I knew what a basketball was. I can remember clear as day watching the 1970 NBA Finals in my parents’ living room. It was the deciding game against the seemingly unstoppable Los Angeles Lakers; the Knicks had their hands completely full and to make it worse, star player Willis Reed had been hurt, leaving the team to be demolished in Game 6 and looking like they were about to be taken out for good.
But in Game 7, far from completely healed, Reed took it upon himself to show his teammates and the world what leadership really looks like.
Few images from childhood have stayed with me longer than the grit, determination, and heart I saw on display as Reed limped onto the floor, ready to jump back into the series and give his team every bit of effort he could muster. In order to gain the ultimate prize, he was willing to put everything he had on the line.
The important lesson here wasn’t only his sacrifice, but in the demonstrable way his teammates responded. Reed only made a couple shots, but that wasn’t the point. The symbolic power of his return to the court, his refusal to let injury hold him back from helping out the squad gave new life to the rest of the team. They ended up cruising to a double-digit victory and brought the championship trophy to NYC.
Inspiring others in business, of course, doesn’t mean putting your long-term health in jeopardy, but possessing the mental strength to inspire through your actions. Reed didn’t just teach a building full of people and millions watching at home (including yours truly) the power of resilience, he demonstrated it with real grit. For a business leader, this means showing your team that you’re willing to bleed for them, that the greater good is something worth sacrificing for.
Leading a team, whether in sports or in business, means leading by example. If you’re not doing the most to get the job done, why should anyone else push themselves to their limits? Being the hardest working person in the room is the clearest way to communicate to your team that they’re all working with a purpose. Setting that example proves the importance of your group goals, and the response can end up being a championship-caliber performance.
Working alongside elite athletes is a thrill, sure, but beyond their star power they’ve got a great deal in common with the business figures I’ve admired as I’ve built my companies. That, not the allure of celebrity, is the real value of getting to know these figures, whether working alongside them in charitable efforts, or looking up at a glowing TV set, eager to see what it is that makes these professionals so admirable to the world.