Drop the ball

Why Sports Are a Terrible Metaphor for Business - by Bill Taylor

Call To Sports — Jun 2018

The buzz around the biggest game in America’s biggest sport is, as always, about more than football. It’s also about business and leadership.

So, the question becomes: What can sports in general, and football in particular, teach us about competition and success, talent and teamwork, value and values? Sports, it turns out, are a terrible metaphor for business, and leaders who look to the gridiron or the soccer pitch for ideas about their work will be sorely disappointed.

And here’s what’s wrong with making analogies between sports and business:

  • The logic of competition and success is completely different.
    In the case of the Super Bowl, there is one world champion, and 31 NFL teams with crushed dreams and dispirited fans. For one team to win, every other team must lose. The logic of business competition is nothing like this.
  • The dynamics of talent and teamwork are completely different.
    Most important, “teamwork” in the NFL means teamwork among players whose careers are absurdly short and whose loyalties to any one team only last as long as the duration of their contracts. Organizations that are building for the long term, that hope to attract, grow, and retain the best people in their fields, that wish to create an environment where great people do their best work year after year, have little to learn from the short-term, utterly disposable mentality that defines life in the NFL.
  • The creation of economic value is completely different.
    Unlike most billion-dollar businesses, which are owned by shareholders and governed by a board of directors, nearly every NFL team is owned by a single individual, and they are accountable to virtually no one besides the other billionaire owners.

What happens on the field (or in the team executives’ offices) teaches us anything about what should happen inside other organizations.