Having studied them for a decade, Stanislav Shekshnia, Veronika Zagieva and Alexey Ulanovsky developed a model of athletic leadership which describes the leadership agendas, practices, outcomes and outputs of these leaders as well as unique attributes that make them effective.
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About the Author
Veronika Zagieva is a director at Ward Howell Talent Equity Institute. Her research focuses on leadership and corporate governance.
Alexey Ulanovsky is an associate professor at National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia, and a consultant at Ward Howell International. He specializes in leadership development and organizational behaviour.
Read an Excerpt
Athletic Leadership Explained
Overpower. Overtake. Overcome.
– Serena Williams
My mother thinks I am the best. And I was raised to always believe what my mother tells me.
– Diego Maradona
Why Athletic Leadership?
Viacheslav Fetisov played his first professional hockey game at the age of 17 and his last at the age of 40. In his 22 seasons on ice, he had a distinguished career in both the leading hockey leagues of the time: the North American NHL and the USSR Top League. He won two Olympic gold medals and seven more at the World Championships as well as the regular season title of the NHL, the Stanley Cup and the Canada Cup. He was captain of the famous 'Red Machine', the USSR ice hockey team of the 1980s and leader of arguably the most powerful and creative quintet in ice hockey's history: Larionov-Krutov-Makarov-Fetisov-Kasatonov. Fetisov explained to us what distinguishes athletes and teams that consistently win at the highest level: ' If the next minute after listening to your national anthem and stepping down from the top of the podium you don't start thinking about how to beat your competitors again, you are finished as a champion.' His words resonate with those of Saveliev, CEO of Aeroflot: 'I am not interested in celebrating old victories; I want to win new ones.' The metaphor of 'athletic leadership' emerged at an early stage of our research. We noticed that all the leaders in our study shared an exceptional desire to win and to improve their performance – just like top-level athletes.
This observation made us look into the research on world-class athletes and led us to interview some of them. Our deep dive into the world of top sport yielded a number of interesting discoveries that reinforced the initial hypothesis about similarities between the leaders we studied and top-performing athletes.
Following the logic of Albert Bandura's triadic concept of human agency, we may look at athlete performance through three lenses: the athlete's behaviour, his or her personality and environmental events. These factors interacting and influencing each other bi-directionally define performance. Performance is thus a function of three variables. First, what elite athletes do: how they train, compete and recover. Second, who they are: what cognitive, emotional, and personal abilities and traits they possess. Third, what kind of environment they train and compete in: external conditions that contribute to their performance (see Figure 1.1).
Athletes and researchers who study them speak about 'extreme pressure', 'ambiguity', 'uncertainty', 'permanent pressure' and 'intensifying competition' as intrinsic characteristics of the wider environment in which they have to compete. At the same time, athletes are the 'centres of gravity', the 'focus' and the 'focal points' of the narrower environments defined by the coaches, personal trainers, psychologists, dieticians, masseurs and other support staff who help them train, compete and recover. This is similar to business leaders who run companies that operate in turbulent, ever-changing, often hostile and always uncertain environments yet enjoy the full attention of numerous deputies, aides and assistants who surround them in the organization.
Three types of activities are essential for consistently winning at the top level in sports – training, competition and recreation. When training, top athletes put in extremely long hours and engage in a deliberate practice described by psychologist Anders Ericsson as 'requiring substantial mental and physical effort', 'targeting specific skills', 'eliminating weaknesses', 'never stopping to develop' and 'receiving clear feedback'. Helmut Wieser, a former international pentathlon athlete, explained to us the difference between the legendary many-time Olympic and world champion Pavel Lednev and the rest: 'We would train with him all day, then we would go to bed and Lednev would go swimming.' When competing, top athletes focus on winning, concentrate mentally and physically on the task, overcome pain and transcend the 'I can't.' Wieser continues, 'Once I ended up next to Lednev at the shooting range. He completely withdrew himself from the world, concentrating on the target. He got 990 out of 1,000 points. I looked at him, his results, got nervous and screwed up my round.' Recreation is based on letting go of physical pain and fatigue and incorporating new lessons into the personal knowledge database.
Although doing a very different type of ajob, in which training, performance and recreation are often blended in a continuous set of activities, the business leaders we studied force themselves and their organizations to work at the edge of their physical, mental and intellectual capabilities, press hard to eliminate their weaknesses and learn both from victories and losses.
In discussing the mentality and personality of world-class athletes, sports commentators frequently describe them as 'tough', emphasizing their total focus on the task and uncompromising competition, tolerance for interference and pitilessness towards themselves.
Academics studying top athletes use the term 'mental toughness' to describe the key element of the top performers' personality. Mental toughness is defined as a collection of inherent values, attitudes and emotions that help the athlete deliver sustainable high performance despite varying, challenging and unfavourable circumstances. Among the characteristics related to mental toughness are loving the pressure of competition, enjoying the bits of training that hurt, adapting to changes or threats and making the right decisions to secure optimal performance under extreme pressure and uncertainty. In her recent book, psychologist Angela Duckworth uses the term 'grit' to describe passion and perseverance towards long-term goals. The leaders in our study possess similar personalities, which largely define their style of leadership. It is no accident that the word their subordinates most often use to describe their bosses is 'tough'.
Model of Athletic Leadership
Sport metaphors are nothing new in the leadership and business literature and are most often used as inspirational analogies. We use them because we see some profound similarities between top-performing athletes and effective CEOs operating in turbulent and highly regulated contexts. The term 'athletic' captures the essence of the latter's leadership – far reaching, competitive, determined and at times merciless. It shows strengths and potential as well as costs and a darker side. The metaphor also highlights similarities between the personality traits and practices of athletes and those of athletic leaders. At the same time this metaphor is not universal and has a limited applicability to a specific type of leadership, which emerged in a particular context and forms the subject of this book.
The similarities should not undermine significant differences between the performances of athletic CEOs and top athletes. Apart from the activities of heads of state, the complexity of CEOs work can hardly be compared to any other human activity. Our protagonists manage tens and even hundreds of thousands of employees, invest tens of billions of dollars and interact with presidents, ministers, global CEOs and international investment bankers. They have to deal with hundreds of variables on a daily basis. Their decisions and actions directly impact millions of people and indirectly affect hundreds of millions. Their organizational legacy will last for decades. To describe the essential elements of the athletic leadership, we have developed a nine-factor model, which is presented in Figure 1.2.
A number of similar events happened in our athletic leaders' early lives, leaving a distinctive mark on their leadership.
All four of the main protagonists of this book had some exposure to competitive sports in their youth. Dyukov, Saveliev and Gref were respectively – fencing, boxing and high jump champions in their junior years. Kaspersky sailed in his native town of Dolgoprudny. Similarly, Sergey Galitsky and Sergey Frank played football, while Oleg Bagrin has been a devoted rock climber for many years and Oleg Tinkov was a high-level amateur cyclist who still dreams of winning the Tour de France. We believe that athletic toughness and adaptability have some of their roots in these youthful activities.
These future athletic leaders occupied leadership positions early in their lives – when most of their contemporaries still had entry-level jobs. Saveliev ran a huge organization at the age of 28. At the same age, Gref became head of a property management fund in a town near St Petersburg, and Dyukov was appointed CFO of St Petersburg's oil terminal (and would become the CEO the following year). Kaspersky headed a group of software designers at the age of 26 and started his own business at the age of 31. Early exposure to leadership made these men comfortable running organizations and contributed to their self-confidence and winning mentality.
It is important to underline that the first leadership experiences of our future 'athletes' were not easy. We have already used this word many times, but when our protagonists speak about their early positions of responsibility, they all call them 'tough'. Saveliev ended up in a hospital bed. Dyukov had to negotiate with aggressive trade unions and semi-criminal vendors. Gref worked at the St Petersburg Property Committee in the 1990s, when the city was infamously known as 'Russia's criminal capital' – and some of his close associates were assassinated. Kaspersky had to lead a group of programmers without any seed capital in a country preoccupied with survival. These difficult leadership experiences gave our protagonists an advantage, making them strong but also somewhat rough-edged and assertive.
Most of the athletic leaders we came across – and all the protagonists of the book – are industry outsiders. They did not study to become bankers, oilmen, airline executives or anti-virus developers. Nor did they work their way up in one organization or industry. Even an entrepreneur like Kaspersky worked for two research institutes before starting his own business. Dyukov came to Gazprom Neft from a chemical company, Saveliev to Aeroflot from telecoms (via a government ministry) and Gref was himself a minister – who had never worked for a business before Sberbank. Exposure to different industries and organizations contributed to these leaders' adaptability and increased their ability to bring about organizational change.
Like top athletes, athletic leaders thrive in competition, push themselves and their organizations to the edge, and stay focused on the goal regardless of the external distractions.
Mental toughness creates a very stable base for athletic leadership, making it focused on winning, concentrated on results, robust and stress-proof. At the same time athletic leaders demonstrate high levels of flexibility in goal setting, strategizing and organizing execution. They exhibit mental adaptability, which is the skill of absorbing new information, updating mental models, and adjusting goals and ways to achieve them under changing circumstances. This tension between toughness and adaptability forms the mental foundation of athletic leadership.
Mental toughness can be broken down into five distinct albeit related – components.
Just as Olympic and world champions are confident about their abilities to perform and succeed at that level, an athletic leader is sure about his capacity to bring an organization to the highest level of performance regardless of external circumstances. When Gref became Sberbank's CEO, he was not only a novice banker but also a novice CEO, yet he was confident that Sberbank would become a world-class organization and made it an explicit goal. Some researchers of top-performing athletes call this feature 'inner arrogance', and we believe the term applies to athletic leaders as well.
Ambition (some scholars use the more politically correct term, 'belief in ability to win') makes athletic leaders consider difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be avoided. They set challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to them; they sustain effort in the face of failure; and they quickly restore a sense of efficacy after setbacks. It is interesting that all four of the leaders we studied (with some caveats in the case of Kaspersky) were industry outsiders, yet each of them demonstrated a high level of confidence from his earliest days in the job onwards. Saveliev, Aeroflot's CEO, spoke to his team about turning the company into the airline of choice for European travellers only a few weeks after taking the job.
Fetisov, the many-time Olympic and world champion and captain of the famous 'Red Machine' USSR ice hockey team in the 1980s told us that 'you cannot keep winning, playing or training beyond the pain barrier for money – you have to love it!'
Sergey Galitsky, the founder and CEO of the largest retail chain in Russia, Magnit, said in one of his rare interviews, 'Energy a person spend on something always results in quality. If you are a businessman, you should think about business all the time – that is how you will win.'
The leaders we studied are passionate about their business, the organizations they head and people they lead. They speak about them with enthusiasm, devote most of their time to them, and willingly accept minor and major suffering for them. Passion gives them motivation, energy and focus.
A focus on performance and total concentration are the cornerstones of daily life, training and competition for top athletes. A number of recent studies show that they have powerful strategies for getting back on track fast when their level of performance drops or external distractions get in the way. Athletic leaders demonstrate the same exceptional level of concentration and focus. Bombarded with myriad ideas, requests and demands on their time, they stay centred on a limited number of priorities, which they pursue with unparalleled passion.
Oleg Bagrin, the CEO of NLMK, an international steelmaker with assets in Russia, the United States, the European Union (EU) and India, explained to us that for the last four years his focus had been on improving the group's profitability through operational effectiveness – and he did just that, in spite of multiple alternatives that came his way. As a result of his concentration and organizational focus the company's profitability (ratio of EBITDA to revenue) grew from 11 per cent to 25 per cent.
A focused mindset allows leaders to work with issues they cannot control, block out distractions, minimize stress when things are not perfect and, most importantly, keep their organizations concentrated on a few key issues. One Gazprom Neft executive describes CEO Dyukov as a man who 'when he decides on something will make sure you do that, no matter what'.
Passion fires up athletic leaders, but just like athletic champions, they master their emotions when the time comes to make important decisions or negotiate significant deals. Keeping a 'cool head' means that a leader has a strong ability to stay calm and think clearly under very stressful conditions. A leader with a cool head applies logic to the situation, analyses available data, seeks expert advice, considers different options and synthesizes a solution.
In 2009, just a few months after becoming Aeroflot's CEO, Saveliev made the controversial decision to take 26 TU-154 airplanes out of service. The company was in very bad shape and every rouble of revenue counted. Many company veterans asked him to reconsider, but the new CEO stayed firm. Mathematical analysis subsequently proved that, because of very low fuel efficiency, every TU-154 flight added US$10,000 to US$20,000 to the company's losses. Similarly, when Alexander decided not only to move Gazprom Neft's headquarters to St Petersburg from Moscow but also to relocate all key people there, most Gazprom Neft executives were sceptical and some tried to persuade the CEO to lower his ambitions, but the move took place as planned. Most key people were still working in St Petersburg four years later.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Athletic CEOs"
Copyright © 2018 Stanislav Shekshnia, Veronika Zagieva and Alexey Ulanovsky.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations; Introduction; 1 Athletic Leadership Explained; 2 The Agenda and Practices of Athletic Leaders; 3 Effectiveness of Athletic Leadership: Outputs and Outcomes; 4 Vitaly Saveliev: Passion and Innovation at the Old Airline; 5 Eugene Kaspersky: Saving the World; 6 Alexander Dyukov: Quiet Transformation of Gazprom Neft; 7 Herman Gref at Sberbank: Entrepreneurship in the Least Likely Place; 8 Athletic Leadership in Other Regions: Roger Agnelli, Dong Mingzhu and Jeff Bezos; 9 Athletic Leadership for Non- Athletes; Appendix: Research Methodology; Index.
What People are Saying About This
‘Athletic CEOs is […] a must-read for every leader who’s facing a challenging transformation in today’s chaotic business world.’
Morten T. Hansen, Professor, University of California Berkeley, USA; coauthor of Great by Choice; author of Great at Work
‘INSEAD Professor Stanislav Shekshnia and colleagues capture the essence of the leadership challenge in turbulent times. Leaders today feel like athletes – learning and working 24/7 – and pushing to get better every day.’
Mark C. Thompson, New York Times Bestselling Leadership Author and #1 Growth Coach
‘Athletic CEOs does not describe a leadership model that we most champion these days. […] It puts a different array of leadership tools at our fingertips and even on an ordinary workday, there may be a tool in this kit that meets a need.’
Whitney Johnson, Thinkers50 Management Thinkers; author of Disrupt Yourself