Like all master’s and MBA students I have attended leadership classes. It was hard for me to realize that this topic is something that a person can learn in a classroom environment. In the United States alone, more than 2,000 books on the topic of leadership are published every year. After finishing my master’s I wanted to delve more deeply into this topic. I subscribed to Harvard Business Review in order to continue to read the latest studies conducted about leadership. One year, 10 editions and many articles later, my conclusion about leadership can be summarized with one phrase by Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers: “leaders are made, they are not born; and they are made just like anything else has been made in this country – by hard effort. And that’s the price that we all have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal”. I am not denying the importance of studying leadership; it is important to know the theory behind the concept, but leaders are made neither by reading books nor participating in workshops. If you want to develop your leadership skills, practice! One of the best platforms to practice your leadership skills is sport.
Why do I think that practicing sports is the best platform to practice leadership skills? Because in sports a 10 year old kid will learn about being goal oriented, how to influence others, how to empower others, how to focus on the big picture, strength of character etc. Those skills will develop along with their character as was the case with my growth experience.
Learning from your own failures is the best lesson.
Since I was six years old I have frequently heard the word “leadership”. When I started to play basketball, my father (a former professional basketball player) told me: “your only chance to reach the professional league is if you become a leader”. I didn’t fully understand what he meant but I trusted my father’s advice and knew that I needed to develop my leadership skills to achieve my goals. The first time I learnt what it meant to be a leader was when I failed to be one. I believe that a person must learn from their mistakes and correct them. I can’t believe that any leader became a leader without failing a few times. Learning from your own failures is the best lesson; my lesson came when I was 14 years old.
My team and I reached the semi-final of the under 14 year’s national championship league. This was the biggest achievement of my home village basketball club. People from many different villages spoke about that achievement and it was covered in local newspapers and radio. The opportunity for me was huge. A kid from a small village in the north of Israel being the captain and carrying his team to reach the final or maybe to win the national championship was both exciting and frightening. Coaches and scouts from the best high schools in Israel would attend those two games in order to find their prospects for the following seasons and I wanted to be written in their notes.
The semi-final matches were played on a home-away basis. The first game we played in our village and the second game in our opponent’s court. The opponent was a famous basketball club from a city close to Tel-Aviv. The team who won with an aggregate score over both games would reach the championship final. The first game was very successful. We won by 10 points and I personally scored 43 points. The excitement building up to the second game was huge. People (not only the families of the players) took time off work to drive all the way to the central part of Israel. The gym was full. The press, coaches and even a few police officers were there; as you can imagine, the level of pressure was daunting. Our team just needed to lose the game with less than nine points and would be in the final. The game started well and we were leading by three points before beginning the final quarter.
My role in the team was so important that I usually played the entire 40 minutes without even a one minute rest. As we reached the last five minutes leading by four points, I committed my fourth foul and immediately the fifth which forced me to sit on the bench. The pressure and emotions caused me to make this mistake and leave my team without their point guard. We lost the game in overtime by 13 points.
If you want to develop your leadership skills, practice!
I can’t describe the level of disappointment I felt about that loss. I remember how I sat in the corner of the court with tears streaming down my face and my coach came to me and said: “today you had a lesson on how leaders should not behave”. I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed on the court and controlled my emotions, but probably we would have won. I learnt my lesson in the most difficult manner possible for a young man with dreams. Nevertheless, life goes on and two months later we played in the cup final and won a very stressful match by one point.
Even today when I go to visit Israel and drive northwards from Tel-Aviv and pass by the city where we lost that game I still think about that mistake and how I left my friends on the court. My lesson was to be able to control my emotions even in the most stressful situations. I learned that staying calm and controlled does not only impact my own performance, but can also help my team because they needed someone who keeps their heads up so they could better focus. It does not matter whether it’s a basketball game, university or work activity. This is one of the elements a leader should have. Leaders are measured mainly in crisis flash points and those are the moments to step up to the mark.
In my next blog I will share my experience on the topic of sacrificing and performing under pressure.
 Hoye, R., Nicholson, M., Stewart, B, & C T Smith, A. (2015) Sport Management: Principles and Applications, 4th /e.
 Westbrook, H. and Smith, A. (2005). Business Leadership and the Lessons from Sport. London: Palgrave Macmillan.