Successful CEO mindsets similar to professional athletes

14 June 2023 5 min. read
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While physically their jobs might be worlds apart, sports stars and business leaders have more in common than at first glance, according to a new survey. The poll of professional athletes and CEOs shows that both groups see mental fortitude as a key component of their success.

It’s not just fictional businessmen like David Brent, with his pretensions of being a rock star, who see themselves as something more than corporate management. Richard Branson famously fancies himself a long-distance hot-air balloon pilot. Flailing his way through a Brazilian jiujitsu tournament, Mark Zuckerberg recently revealed he sees himself as something of a martial artist.

That last example might resonate most with new research released by business consultancy Elixirr, which suggests that of all the potential roles C-level leaders identify with, they have most in common with professional athletes. In terms of mentality, at least.

Successful CEO mindsets similar to professional athletes

Analysing a study conducted by Censuswide – polling 103 respondents who play competitive sports professionally and 252 CEOs of companies with at least 100 employees – Elixirr found both groups believed that being more mentally resilient than their competitors was the top driver of high performance.

Elixirr’s own CEO Stephen Newton also regularly draws parallels between what it takes to succeed in sport and business. He previously told that he has have “never played to come second in anything” – including table tennis against his own son – and his firm’s research subsequently seems to have resonated with him.

Speaking on the report’s launch, Newton noted, “It’s clear that high performance isn’t just the preserve of professional athletes. Determination, commitment and sacrifices are needed for successful CEOs and professional sports players alike, yet the intangible demands and accomplishments of business leaders are less often acknowledged.”

Indeed, while the physical requirements of elite athletes are most often the qualities revered and celebrated publicly, many top sporting professionals believe it is their less-recognised intangible demands of which matter most – the same as business leaders. A 99% majority of sports players told the analysts that they put a huge amount of pressure on themselves to succeed, alongside 94% of CEOs. As a result, both groups adopt similar tactics to strengthen their physical, mental and emotional fortitude.

Mentality monsters

Foremost among this was the development of “a winning mindset” is vital to becoming a high performer both in the boardroom and on the sports field. This is something which football fans who followed Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team – which he branded as “mentality monsters” on the way to winning a first league title in three decades – will be familiar with. Athletes clearly feel matches can be won or lost on mental strength alone in that context, while CEOs also believe that kind of fortitude is essential for making the right calls in the boardroom. 

Reflecting that, 100% of both cohorts told researchers that they spent time before a big meeting or contest “mentally preparing”. A 27% chunk of CEOs added they spent an average of 16 to 20 minutes “psyching themselves up” before a meeting.

Acknowledging that, Newton added, “We recognise the preparation, the pressure and the responsibility that you don’t always see on the surface, because it’s those qualities that make it possible for successful CEOs to become bold business leaders who pioneer change on a real scale”.

This also translates to an ability among both groups to make important calls when things are going wrong. Elixirr noted the likes of Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and Lionesses captain Leah Williamson are famed for being able to pivot a game plan when up against it, and suggested successful CEOs also understand flexibility is critical for their operations. A 78% majority of both sets of respondents felt confident adopting a new approach if their strategy was failing in a crunch situation.

Collective success

This is not to say that mind-set is the only thing which matters when it comes to performance, though. In order to set themselves up for success, both CEOs and sports stars establish disciplined and robust training habits, and pre-event rituals. A 91% portion of CEOs noted that they have a regular ritual that helps to achieve targets, and 100% of professional sports players said the same.

Elixirr cited NBA champion Lebron James’ famous pre-game chalk clap as an example of this in sport, while in the corporate world, Apple CEO Tim Cook always starts his day at 3:45am.

The jobs of athletes and CEOs do differ in a number of ways, of course. Measuring the individual contributions of the two varies significantly, for example. While baseball teams are able to keep track of individual statistics – batting average, home runs, runs batted in, and so on – tangible metrics around CEOs measure greatly.

Meanwhile, companies might use share price increases, value added, or raises in revenues to assess a CEO, but those boosts are also reflective of the work many other people also did at a firm. Perhaps a CEO came up with the plan, but they were not the ones who executed it directly.

Importantly, though, the research also pointed out similarities in attitudes of CEOs and athletes when it came to collective success. Both groups were acutely aware their accomplishments depended on the skills of others as well, with 92% of CEOs and athletes 98% attributing some of their success to team members and those around them.