It’s FIFA World Cup time and I recently read an article that prompted some thinking and reflection around leadership and sports. The article, titled Sergio Ramos, the World Cup and the Benefits of Bad Sportsmanship, appeared in the online version of the Wall Street Journal. The author, Sam Walker, starts by sharing the story of how Sergio Ramos, the captain of his club team, Real Madrid, executed a “violent tackle” of Liverpool’s top scorer, Mohamed Salah, resulting in an injury that forced Mr. Salah to leave the game in the Champions League final. Real Madrid ended up winning the contest 3-1.

The author transitions the discussion to leadership, specifically “aggressive leadership”, noting that similar “bad behavior” can be practiced by leaders in business and other areas. He references research into aggressive acts and points out a distinction between “hostile” and “instrumental” aggression, the latter being described as something “that may look hostile, but is chiefly done to achieve a worthwhile goal.” (Note: Many people were outraged and over 500,000 signed a petition asking for punishment of Mr. Ramos.) After further analysis, Mr. Walker states that Mr. Ramos’ act was more the latter and that his tackle of Mr. Salah “was the work of a committed leader.” I don’t agree. More on that below, but the author went on to say the following which really got me thinking: “No matter what business they’re in, exceptional leaders care more about the team’s results than how their individual contributions might be judged. They’re exceptional because they don’t care if you hate them.”

Let’s talk about these last two sentences: First … “No matter what business they’re in, exceptional leaders care more about the team’s results than how their individual contributions might be judged.” On the one hand, I agree. Great leaders are committed to their teams or organizations or causes. They are primarily motivated and driven by the greater goal, higher purpose or worthwhile cause. They are more energized by team accomplishments and the advancement & growth of those individuals on their team, than they are their own ascension or recognition. But, if their tactics and practices are not consistent with my principles and beliefs, I will be looking for another team or organization. I like to think leaders have more responsibilities than assuring they meet their team goals. The “how” can be just as important as the “what”. Yes, Sergio Ramos helped deliver a championship but, if I were a teammate, that’s not how I would want to win. I’ve not played in a World Cup and I can’t speak for Mr. Ramos’ teammates – or his competitors – but perhaps his approach is deemed acceptable by them. However, I have worked in the business world and can say that I wouldn’t want to be on a team that achieves its business goals through what I would consider questionable practices – what might be analogous to taking down a competitor in a legal but un-principled way. As the leader of a team, I would also feel a responsibility to serve as a role model for future leaders, some of which may be team members. As a mentor of mine would say, “Beware the shadow you cast.” So, for the first sentence I’d rather state it as follows: “No matter what business they’re in, exceptional leaders care about both meeting/exceeding their team’s goals AND how they deliver on them.”

Enough said there – onto the second sentence: “They’re exceptional because they don’t care if you hate them.” Perhaps, though I would think an exceptional leader would want you to respect them and how they go about doing what they do. Back to what I said previously … if I can’t look at a leader as a role model for other leaders, then I don’t consider them an exceptional leader. In the article, the author makes a reference to sportsmanship and what we teach our children – “it’s how you play the game.” I like to think that can extend to professional leadership, and that you can still play aggressively and play to win (whatever your profession), but you can also do it with integrity, respect for people, ethical behavior and principles that most youth sports coaches would approve of. I know quite a few individuals in executive positions who have advanced to those levels abiding by these same principles. So, I’d be more in agreement with … “They’re exceptional because, even if you don’t like them, you still respect them.”

Finally, though we can learn many leadership lessons from sports, we do need to be careful because not every concept or principle translates. But is it crazy to think that leaders in business and other non-sport fields can and should abide by the same sportsmanship principles that we teach our children?