Sports Business Journal – Five Rules of Leadership

By Greg Economou

In order for any organization, team or company to succeed, quality leadership is

paramount. With the help of quotes from some famous leaders, the following paragraphs offer five characteristics of leadership and match each characteristic with a present‐day sports business figure.


  1. Accept that it is nurture, not nature

“Leaders aren’t born they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” — Vince Lombardi

Lombardi was perhaps the greatest coach to ever don a whistle. His professional résumé speaks for itself; however, his persona and legacy have had a far greater impact on not only professional sports, but also society in general. He believed that leadership was a skill and an art and, like most skills or forms of art, it could be mastered if requisite amounts of dedication and study were applied.

Therefore, if someone aspires to become a leader, he or she should approach it like any other challenge — establish clear and attainable goals, develop a plan that creates the road map to achieve such goals, and finally, go through the process of working to achieve the stated goals. NBA Commissioner David Stern exemplifies this approach, long known for his legendary work ethic and desire to improve.


  1. Possess strong core values

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” — Peter Drucker

One of the modern business world’s most prolific management gurus, Drucker understood the age‐old adage “lead by example” as a profound truism. He found it imperative that leaders stand for something — preferably things that are understandable and admirable, and easily emulated by subordinates.

Regardless of leadership style or approach, a leader must possess values that are morally just and able to stand the test of time. Core values such as passion, work ethic, integrity, and teamwork, when displayed honestly and consistently by a leader, are ideals that followers can understand, admire, and embrace. For example, Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, does things right and does the right things — the sign of a great leader. His hard‐line stance on serious player issues has helped quickly reverse an alarming trend for the NFL brand.


  1. Display philosophical and functional consistency

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

One of the Founding Fathers of this country, Adams’ statement is magnificent in its simplicity and power. His suggestion that great leaders affect both the thoughts and actions of followers is most insightful. Moreover, despite varying leadership styles and approaches, Adams is clear that the fundamental axiom to great leadership is teaching or moving others to make progress and achieve goals.

Therefore, great leaders must be cognizant of their own philosophy and style; they must be vigilant to remain consistent and steady in context to their philosophy and decision‐making; and leaders must always be aware of their impact on others. Perhaps no other sports industry executive embodies these ideals as well as Phil Knight, whose vision for Nike is only matched by the company’s ability to continually create great products.


  1. Develop strategic capabilities

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” — Proverbs 29:18

The quote from Proverbs is simple and stark. However, it is also absolutely true. If there is no plan, one that is completely understood and embraced by followers, there cannot be success. In fact, the quote suggests utter failure in the absence of strategy. Therefore, strong leaders must possess strategic abilities — a combination of intelligence, insight, vision, and the pursuit of truth.

Moreover, leaders must understand the purpose of a particular organization or endeavor and ensure this purpose is communicated to followers to provide context for all decisions and actions. They must articulate a clear and cogent mission that can be understood and accepted by all followers so that there is a path to follow, whether the leader is out front or out of sight. Finally, leaders must possess vision, providing the goals and inspiration for followers to achieve such objectives.

Recognized as one of the most strategic companies within the realm of sports, ESPN boasts extraordinary leaders like George Bodenheimer and John Skipper, who continually reinvent the company in their pursuit of greatness. Beginning with a simple sports news show in 1979 and growing the company into a media empire with multiple television channels, a leading publication, perhaps the most advanced digital environment in existence, and a strategic dominance in rights fee ownership is proof of their extraordinary vision.


  1. Hone trust building and communication skills

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” — George Patton

Patton understood this dynamic and used it to become one of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century. His ability to earn the respect and trust of his men and to clearly communicate his objectives and strategies made him extraordinarily successful in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Despite his reputation as an overbearing and aggressive leader, he empowered his troops by earning their trust, even if they didn’t like him personally.

Hence, trust is perhaps the most important element in the leadership dynamic. If followers truly trust their leader and he or she trusts them, anything is possible. Trust sets the stage for clear two‐way communication and the ability to problem‐ solve through collaboration and even productive conflict. Without trust, nothing is possible. There is perhaps no other sports industry leader that communicates more effectively than Fox Sports’ David Hill, who, through such communication, not only engenders the trust of his team; but has also earned him the respect of the entire industry.

Becoming a great leader is possible for anyone that has the desire to be one. It requires hard work and a commitment to excel. Moreover, a prospective leader must be committed to a strong value system, remain consistent in his or her approach, be strategic, must earn the trust of his or her peers and followers, and be extremely decisive. The rest is easy.

Greg Economou ( is a veteran sports marketing and management executive with more than 15 years of team, league and agency experience.