Sports has long played an important role in most of our lives. Whether it’s Anju Bobby George’s glorious long jump, the Indian Hockey Team’s legendary win at the 1975 World Cup Finals, or that famous six hit by MS Dhoni 10 years ago — these sporting moments remain etched in our memories.
I must admit, although I’m not the biggest sports fanatic, I have always been inspired by tales of athletes and teams who battled against incredible odds to reach the summit. We all love a good underdog story. I certainly do.
There are some interesting parallels that one can take from the world of sports to the world of entrepreneurship. The passion, tenacity, self-confidence, and ability to persevere through any obstacle are essential characteristics of both founders and athletes. In fact, I believe that entrepreneurship is an extreme sport in itself!
Let’s explore some of the common traits required to succeed in sports as well as in business.
Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” When you look at the most dominant sports teams in history — the Indian Hockey Team of the 1940s & 50s, the Chicago Bulls of the 90s, the Australian Cricket Team of the 2000s — you’ll see a common pattern emerge. Each team member brought in their own unique skills, which collectively enabled the team to perform at incredible levels.
This is especially true in entrepreneurship. Startups are not a one-person show. Founders need a strong team who bring complementary skills and different outlooks to the table. As a startup begins to scale, it is essential to surround yourself with team members who lift the organization’s performance, all in the pursuit of a common mission. This is why hiring is one of the key functions founders must get right while building their startups.
Mary Kom was the daughter of a landless agricultural laborer. She neither had the financial support nor the coaching required to hone her talents. She is now a 5-time World Amateur Boxing Champion. Milkha Singh witnessed the killing of his parents and siblings during the partition. He had to run for his life & struggle for rehabilitation. He ended up winning four gold medals in the Asian Games. Sports is littered with stories of underdogs who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles and persevered to reach the pinnacle of their fields.
This is an essential quality of founders as well. Thirty-six publishers rejected Arianna Huffington. Steve Jobs was fired from the company that he co-founded. Dhirubhai Ambani started his entrepreneurial journey by selling bhajias and working as a gas station attendant at 16. Narayan Murthy could not afford the fees to IIT even after clearing the entrance exam. The ability to keep persevering in the face of adversity, to fight through obstacles that come between your dreams, to never give up, and throw in the towel are what define successful athletes and entrepreneurs.
I had earlier written an article about what leadership means to me. My outlook on what it means to be a good leader has also slowly evolved over the years. I used to believe that being a good leader was purely built around the notion of competence — How much shareholder value have you been able to create? How much market share have you captured? What is the material success you have been able to generate for your business?
This definition of leadership has slowly evolved for me to capture some of the softer skills that are often found missing. A good captain or leader must be able to inspire and empower their team. They must be authentic, empathetic, and be truly vested in ensuring that all members succeed.
“A star wants to see himself rise to the top. A leader wants to see those around him rise to the top.” -Simon Sinek.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
I really like this quote by Shunryu Suzuki from his book — Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Being humble is an integral part of succeeding in both sports and business.
How many goals you’ve scored has no relevance when you’re getting ready for your next match. How many runs you’ve scored doesn’t matter when you’re padding up for your next innings. It’s important to remember that every new innings or match starts from zero, and you cannot bring any arrogance or ego as you move forward.
This holds doubly true in the world of entrepreneurship. You may be coming off the back of a successful exit. You may come with a lot of senior corporate experience. You may have access to the best investors in the ecosystem. But at the end of the day, you must recognize that you are building something from scratch, and you must have the humility to accept that you may not have all the answers.
It is so crucial to be adaptable in the world of startups and sports. Uncertainty is not a bug; it’s a feature of both worlds.
In sports, you need to be adaptable to deal with changing weather conditions, playing in different stadiums, dealing with injuries and adapting your game to your body, etc.
In startups as well, founders should embrace uncertainty and tackle it head-on. Founders must adapt to regulatory changes, market dynamics, and competition. Most importantly, founders need to adapt and evolve their own mindset as the company grows. You cannot approach problems the same way you used to when you were a team of 10 than when you become a team of 100. Growth requires change. Like how playing at a club level is not the same as playing for your national team, founders need to grow and adapt as the company scales.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from athletes and entrepreneurs about perseverance, work ethic, and success.
I love the book ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight — the founder of Nike. Knight was a track athlete back in his college days, and he perfectly sums up what it means to run a business by taking an analogy from his running days here –
“I thought back on my running career at Oregon. I’d competed with, and against, men far better, faster, more physically gifted. Many were future Olympians. And yet I’d trained myself to forget this unhappy fact. People reflexively assume that competition is always a good thing, that it always brings out the best in people, but that’s only true of people who can forget the competition. The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting, and I now reminded myself of that fact. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past.”