Sport metaphors easily find their way in leadership talks. And successful sport coaches can fill their days and wallets with keynotes about excellent team performance. Who wouldn’t like to hear how Marc Wilmots drives the Belgian Red Devils to the maximum of their possibilities? How does he forge cohesion out of the often fierce individual interests of players? How does he involve team captain Vincent Kompany in defining strategy, in motivating and selecting the right players? How does he share his authority with assistant-coaches, physical trainers and the rest of the staff?

But can the lessons from sports teams really be applied in modern organisational life? I have my doubts. Academic team expert Hackman (2002) gives the following five conditions for team effectiveness: a compelling direction, real team work and an enabling structure (e.g. clear norms, adequate size & diversity). He calls this the ‘shell’ of the team. A supportive context and expert coaching bring dynamic and life to the team. Applied to sport teams, these conditions are easily met. Applied to e.g. a managerial team, conditions are blurry: no clear goal, limited interdependency, vague boundaries, an inadequate size, a difficult context and rarely an expert coach.

And yet. Katrien Fransen received yesterday night her PhD degree at the department of Kinesiology of the KU Leuven with research about leadership in sport teams. She discovered in her research with 4451 participants in 9 team sports, from top professional to pure amateur level that athlete leaders fulfill 4 roles: task, social, motivational and external. To her surprise, 44 % of the formal team captains held none of the four leader roles. In other words: leadership was shown in informal way. Only 1 % of the team captains fulfilled the 4 roles. This certainly proves that the role of team captains is overrated in terms of leadership.


Further research revealed two core attributes of athlete leaders. Regardless of the leader role (task, social…), the leader had wide acceptance in the team and he/she had a positive influence on the self-confidence of the team members. Further research is needed to define additional attributes that explains why athletes are seen as leader in a specific role.

What is the value of having athlete leaders in a sports team? Through cross-sectional and experimental research, Fransen proved that athlete leaders provide team identification. They create a “we” out of the different “I’s”. Athlete leaders and team identification lead to team confidence in team processes and team results and this confidence leads to real team performance.

The recommendations for sports teams are clear. First of all, don’t project all leadership expectations on the formal leader. Leadership is better when shared amongst several ‘leaders’. Secondly, value & recognize the role of informal leaders and don’t depend too much on the formal leaders. Thirdly, leadership is needed to drive team-confidence and team results. And finally, to be seen as leader and to develop leadership, acceptance in the group and radiating confidence is necessary.

“Coaches should pay more attention to identify and improve the leadership qualities of their captain and other leaders in the team!”

 It seems to me that these insights are perfectly valid for any team and organisation, even if the conditions for team work are far less favorable.

Any comment?

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