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Boot Camp and Cheerleaders

At some point or another you have heard someone make the claim that sports are a metaphor for war. It is a frequently made observation that cities, states, universities, and high schools that compete with each other on the playing field are really at battle with each other just like in ancient times when cities waged actual war on each other. Today, inside the modern day sports arena, what is at stake is economical dominance rather than a matter of life or death.

American football is the most obvious of the metaphors and was very nicely characterized in a fantastic comedy piece performed by the late, great George Carlin. His humor focused on the brutal nature of the grid iron. However, the sheer physicality of the sport does not require us to stretch far to see the nature of battle in our favorite American Sunday afternoon pastime. But, you can make the case for most sports – there is an element of battle, waging the best warrior from each city to overtake the others in their path. Heck, even chess, such a cerebral sport, is based on characters of war, pitting one kingdom against the other until conquest is complete.

Then there are the sports that practice elements of war. Wrestling, track & field, archery, the skiing biathlon, boxing and all the martial arts, all pit individuals against each other in typical situations required within actual combat or battle. So, I probably don’t need to keep making the case. We continuously fight each other with a ball now. It is more pleasant than the real thing.

I like the fact that we have turned much of our natural human aggression into sport. Having toured many medieval castles that were ruined during wars hundreds of years ago, I think it is better to be resoundingly beaten on the court or pitch, with present day warriors licking their proverbial wounds on the plane ride home, rather than having artillery hurled through the walls of our town offices. We still have things at stake, but it seems more sustainable with a tennis ball over a cannon ball.

Bowl Battle

What if we were to operate this way within our non-sports enterprises? Every once in a while I hear a reference to a company waging war on another, but it is not all that common. But, if we were to adopt the sports version of the metaphor, there are some interesting possibilities. Our customer-facing functions do well serving their customers, but what if they also split some of their focus on battling competitors?

First and foremost what is required to operate within this metaphor is the focus on winning. Winning is binary. You either get a W or an L in the win/loss column. The focus on the W is an amazing motivator. But for most businesses the focus is on a number instead of an opponent. Beating last year’s revenue by 4% does not seem as real to me as beating another company located in another city, and who wears a different logo on their helmets and uniforms. More focus on an opponent, and especially more focus on beating that opponent, would go a long way toward the mobilization of corporate energy.

Another element of the sports-as-war metaphor that I think would benefit other businesses is the concept of practicing. If you are a sports team you practice in between games. If you are a military unit you train and conduct military exercises. If you are a business you hire people with a degree and maybe experience and then turn them loose on the real world. If more companies conducted more team practice, performance would go up, just like in the world of sports. Nobody makes it to the Olympics though on-the-job training.

And then there are the plays kept secretly in the playbook. Why don’t we have playbooks within the business world? There are some. Following your deals within the stages of a sales methodology begins to look like the plays your coach might call when it is second down and five to go. But, I think we could do more of that – define scenarios that call for synchronized actions outlined for the different players within the team. This, by the way, will have a big implication for your CRM system.

One of the best aspects of well organized sports, especially at the collegiate and professional, level is the way it can galvanize an entire community behind the team. The soccer World Cup and the Super Bowl are significant examples of this. Just think what it would be like if your company had an entire city behind it while it waged battle with the opponent from another corporation located in another city. I think it would be great to see a crowd of people waiting for me at the airport when I come back from a successful business trip. Is this too far fetched? If we did more in our companies to be a part of the communities where we reside, sharing our challenges and successes, we might eventually see the community rallying behind the business enterprise – it is possible.

And then there is the idea of cheerleaders. Wouldn’t that be something? Or maybe it is more like a MASH unit following me around as I wage battle (perhaps that is what the executive lounge at the airport is accomplishing already). The comparisons can keep going, but I’ll stop while I am ahead. Ultimately, the point is that maybe we could get more mileage if we didn’t manage our companies just from a spread sheet, but also from the metaphorical perspective the sports world benefits from when it wages its wars.

So, go find an opponent and declare war; suit up for a battle and return victorious with the booty. Just don’t kill any of your customers along the way.

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