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Summer 2021’s Ten Great Leadership Moments from Sports

Published 13 September 2021 in Leadership • 8 min read

Stewardship of teams on the pitch can offer powerful inspiration for the world of business, find Susan Goldsworthy and Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff.

When this summer’s crowded sporting calendar kicked off three months ago, concerns were (rightly) focused on how to stage events safely amid a global pandemic, efforts that if successfully implemented could boost public morale as well as throw a lifeline to one of the global industries heavily battered by last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns.

Three months later, it is clearer than ever just how important sports are beyond the business of entertainment.

Sports bring people of different backgrounds, nationalities, colors and creeds together into a global community, highlighting that there’s more that unites us than divides us. The humanity and shared experience of sporting mega events, amid the drama of training and performances, also offer an ideal incubation lab for lessons in leadership.

The practice of putting colleagues in a new environment or context to reflect and work on numerous skills is the ethos behind so many corporate teambuilding or professional development retreats. Yet, with widespread travel still limited due to the pandemic, this summer’s sporting events offer a virtual retreat for business leaders around the world.

As with sport, so with business. The corporate world can no longer focus solely on the winner or on the disaster at hand. Instead, it must shift to accommodate the middle ground of sustainable performances that empower workforces to thrive and collaborate. For the wellbeing of all, we must shift from a power over to a power with approach. There’s an opportunity to harness the Olympic spirit for success via collaboration, enable teams to rest and revive, and think like coaches, borrowing lessons from the sports world to build better, stronger organizations.

But how does this translate into the field? Here are 10 compelling leadership moments from this summer’s sporting scene that offer lessons for leaders everywhere:

1. Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi agree to share the high jump gold medal

Both high jumpers, who are also good friends, failed to clear 2.39m during their event and, as they shared identical records, were primed to go to a jump-off in order to determine the winner. However, when Barshim’s ask of Olympic officials for them both to share the gold medal was met with a positive response, the two athletes provided the world with one of the most memorable celebrations of these Games.  

 Winning isn’t always about beating or dominating opponents. Instead, victories can come in many different guises — not just being “first.” Barshim and Tamberi provided the world with a first-class lesson in the spirit of unity and togetherness enshrined in the Olympic Oath.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

2. The French Open’s decision to extend the curfew during the match between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

The start of Roland Garos was delayed by one week to accommodate the French government’s public health measures and had to abide by the 22h curfew. When the semi-final between Nadal and Djokovic was set to continue into a fourth set, breaking the curfew, event organizers quickly co-ordinated with local authorities to make an exception and let the crowd of 5,000 remain in the stadium to finish the match.

The ability to be nimble, flexible, and to pivot plans as events beyond our control alter the landscape, is one of the most important leadership qualities. It is important to sense the pulse of the organization and know when to make exceptions for the greater good. It also reminds us that we have more agency than we may realize.

3. Tennis champion Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of Roland Garros.

Twenty-three-year-old tennis superstar Osaka shocked the world in June when she withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health. The move came after she refused to conduct a press conference at the  tournament, and was  penalized  with a $15,000 fine, Not only did Osaka make it “O.K. to not be O.K.” but the move also highlighted the shift towards greater athlete power in the global business of sports entertainment.

Looking after mental health is vitally important and underscores the humanity of workers across all industries as living systems–not machines that can operate  ad infinitum without maintenance, rest, and recovery. Good leaders recognize when there is a need to pause and take a step back to safeguard themselves or their teams. Osaka’s willingness to take a stance and stand up to help destigmatize mental health will have long-term and wide-ranging repercussions that can positively impact wider workforces in and outside of the sports world.

4. Danish football captain Simon Kjaer quickly led on the pitch as teammate Christian Eriksen collapsed at the UEFA Euro2020.

Denmark’s opening match against Finland took a dark turn when midfielder Eriksen suffered a heart attack and crumpled to the ground. Center-back Kjaer sprinted to his teammate, rolled Eriksen onto his side and stabilized him as medics rushed the field to perform resuscitation, . Once the doctors arrived, Kjaer got out of their way and marshalled his team mates to form a human shield to protect their fellow player from the glare of the world’s media.  

Good leaders know when to act decisively, to foster solidarity and teamwork, and, in Kjaer’s case, to lead from behind. But they also know when to let the experts do their jobs and deploy their specific skills to contribute to the whole. They also mobilize others to demonstrate respect and care in the moment.

6. England’s Marcus Rashford’s response after his team lost the Euro 2020 finals.

After missing his kick during England’s penalty shoot-out against Italy, Rashford addressed his critics on Twitter with a brilliant quote that exemplifies leadership in acknowledging how awful missteps can feel, but separating performance from who he is as a person.  

“All I can say is sorry. I wish it had gone differently…But I will never apologize for who I am or where I come from…I’m Marcus Rashford, 23 year old Black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else, I have that.” 

The player who has helped revolutionize the power of an individual’s voice and platform, provides one of the more poignant lessons in leadership: that we are all human and performances alone do not define who we are. Moreover, as the last year of pro-civil rights and human rights athlete activism illuminates, industry leaders can no longer sit on the sidelines but must now consider how, like Rashford, to best use the power of their platforms to take a stance 

7. F1 Champion Lewis Hamilton discussed his long COVID-19 effects.

In early August, the seven-time World Champion confided that blurred vision, dizziness, and fatigue negatively impacted his performance at the Hungarian Grand Prix and were likely the after-effects of his bout with the coronavirus last season. Although not the first, he joined just a small number of elite global athletes who have publicly discussed how much their skills and capacities are impacted long after they became sick with COVID-19, helping to crack open a new frontier in the longer-term effects of the virus.  

Leaders who humanize their own lived experiences can help to destigmatize illness and raise awareness of lingering repercussions. In the case of long COVID-19, a phenomenon experts are still trying to better understand, Hamilton is standing up and helping to shine the limelight on the virus’ after-effects that’s not as of yet as widely discussed or acknowledged. 

8. New Zealand transgender powerlifter Laurel Hubbard at the Tokyo Games.

As the first openly transgender Olympic weightlifter, Hubbard trailblazed a path forward for others to follow in her footsteps. The 43-year old competed in the women’s +87kg weightlifting event, thus setting a highly visible sign of inclusion for younger generations. When changing norms, there will always be controversy and, whether one agrees with the decision to include transgender in women’s events or not, the key is to have open dialogue. 

Building an inclusive and diverse team, whether for the Olympics or industry, blazes the path forward, models leadership by example, and builds stronger ethos and community which benefits the larger workforce. Significant change is usually controversial and the key is to open safe spaces for dialogue. Good leaders provide robust support for and champion their teams in recognition that doing so can empower them to thrive.  


9. U.S. gymnastics GOAT Simone Biles withdrew from several events at the Tokyo Games due to mental health.

To be the greatest of all time is to understand what it takes to perform at your peak levels, and in the world of gymnastics, in which a slight slip can translate into bodily harm, being present in body and mind is vital. Biles’ announced withdrawal from several gymnastics events not only shone a spotlight on the necessity of mental health, but also underscored the physical perils that gymnasts face. Yet, through it all, she showed up and was present to cheer on her teammates throughout their competition and later cited her decision to withdraw as one of her career’s greatest accomplishments. 

Leadership can take on many forms and shapes. Knowing one’s own limits is an important and often neglected aspect of leadership both at an individual and a collective societal level. Rather than focusing on being limitless, it is important to remember that we live on a planet with finite resources. Raising questions about healthy limits is vital to create the conditions for sustainable high performance 

Simone Biles JO
Olympic gymnast Simone Biles

10. Afghan Paralympians compete in Tokyo after the country withdraws its participation in Paralympics, illustrating how to defy the odds to lead and inspire.

In the devastating aftermath of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli were warmly welcomed at the Paralympic Athletes Village after a global effort to evacuate them from their homeland. The two were unable to train after the Afghan government fell and the Afghan Paralympic Committee had announced that they would not compete at the Games. Evacuated from Afghanistan, the two were welcomed at France’s national sports training center for a week’s worth of sporting preparations. Khudadadi is the first female Afghan Paralympian to compete at the Games since Athens 2004. A statement from the IPC read, “Through their participation in the Games and performances on the field-of-play, the athletes call for hope, peace and solidarity for the people of Afghanistan and the world.”

Sometimes simply showing up to perform to the best of our abilities after surmounting outside events beyond our control is winning in its most poignant essence. This story illustrates the fundamental tenet of the Olympic movement: that it is the taking part which is most important. Is shows how we can rise above individual difference to focus on what unites us, recognizing our co-dependency as part of a living world.  Maintaining hope in others and belief in themselves, these Paralympians remind us of the importance of community and working together, with passion, to overcome obstacles and contribute to a larger purpose. 


Susan Goldsworthy

Susan Goldsworthy

Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD

Susan Goldsworthy OLY is an Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD. Co-author of three award-winning books, she is also an Olympic swimmer. She is a highly qualified executive coach and is trained in numerous psychometric assessments. She is Director of the IMD Executive Coaching Certificate and Program Director of the Leading Sustainable Change program.

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian, consultant, and author of Basketball Empire: France and the Making of a Global NBA and WNBA (Bloomsbury, 2023) and The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France 1958-2010 (Lexington Books, 2012). She is an Adjunct Instructor at New York University‘s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.


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