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Project leadership skills you can learn from sport

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Project managers have the ability to learn from some of the best athletes and sporting teams. Keeping an open-minded approach is a quality of most successful project managers, and some of the aspects of what creates success in sports can be applied to your project management approach. Here are just a few:


One of the most misunderstood ideas of what a project management role entails is that it is just about keeping everything on track. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Just like every sports team needs a strong leader, the most successful project managers are just that, as leaders of their projects. Leaders show direction and give clear guidance and explanation of what is needed. They are there when their team needs them and in turn, do what is needed to help them, building mutual trust and leading to eventual success.

In the Premier League standings, success is defined as a win. But teams that consistently win are those whose coaches are successful at leading their team with more than just knowing the rules of the game and basic strategy. Likewise, projects succeed when leaders can distinguish between knowledge of the ‘game’ and the leadership skills needed to succeed. Both successful coaches and successful project managers know not just how to play the game, but how to lead.

Team comes first

We’ve all heard the line, ‘there is no ‘I’ in TEAM’, and just as it is relevant to a sports team, it applies to your teams at the office or in the field. Even in individual sports, there are others behind the player supporting them along the way. Boxers have trainers to make sure they are fit and follow the plan of attack, and golfers have instructors giving them guidance from how to blast a sand shot with their sand wedge, to the best approach to take from the tee. A good project manager will focus on their team, helping them to grow and enhance their ability to self-organise, which are keys to success.

Look at long-term goal

One of the biggest attractions to sports is the result or instant return we get when our team wins or loses. The good returns quickly help us to forget about the past games or matches that didn’t go so well. While sport is typically focused on the ‘here and now’, to become a truly successful athlete it pays to focus on the future. While the goal that is in front of you right now is important, typically success comes after years of hard work, effort, and practice.

When leading a project, it’s important to focus on the long-term goal you’re looking to achieve. The short-term goals are all part of what is leading up to the eventual end game, and if everything is delivered on time and on budget, many of the problems or issues that occurred along the way will be forgotten by everyone else, and become learning points for your decisions to make on the next project.

Adapt to changes

All sports are unpredictable, with countless variables that contribute to who wins and who doesn’t. While many fans have their favourites, and there are usually underdogs and mismatches occasionally throughout seasons, there is no guarantee that one team will win.

While you can do all you can to plan and develop a strategy, you must be prepared to make a change whenever it becomes necessary. When a professional golfer starts to struggle, after making countless adjustments it can sometimes come down to changing every club in their bag. 

There are times you’ll deliver a project without making any changes, but eventually, there will come a time that you’ll have a project that will force you to modify the plan or restart it all together. If you’re wanting to succeed, always be ready to make a change to get the win.

Rebuild when necessary

Just like the most successful teams on the field or court will eventually end their run, the same holds true for many projects. Rebuilding is one of the biggest hurdles a team’s general manager has to face after a successful run of seasons, and while your project may be on course now, through natural attrition over the course of time changes within your project team will need to be addressed.

So, first, look at what are you going to do to rebuild? Be sure to look at your existing organisation before venturing outside. Check out the people that were underneath that managed to help with projects before as there may be some individuals that have the aspirations to, and the qualities to take on that managerial role. By doing this, you won’t have to look outside the organisation and have to concern yourself with training them on your culture, and what it is and how it is that you do business.

Learn more leadership skills in APM Learning.

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