The Best Business Lesson Sports Teaches Us

I love watching great sports of all kinds – from the World Cup to Wimbledon. It is always incredible to see a perfect pass, or a beautiful shot, or any moment when seemingly independent actions connect to deliver a breathtaking goal. No matter what sport you watch, you get to witness an athlete’s appetite for taking bold action when the moment demands it. Actions where the risk may be great, but the potential reward is even greater.

As Michael Jordan once put it, “I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The principle here is clear – when the pressure is on, every path forward will come with some risk. So if you want to find the successful path, you must first embrace risk.

I think about that when I think about my grandfather, who risked it all in 1915 by leaving Greece for Australia– but in the end his journey made it possible for him to succeed in life. And he passed that chance for success down to me and my family.

And I think about it in my role as a CEO. Because like my grandfather, and like all great athletes, business leaders understand that standing still – refusing to embrace risk – is the riskiest action of all. The status quo, really, is no longer an option. Even the most exciting new products become obsolete over time – more quickly than ever, in many cases. These days, we see so many disruptive forces in so many new industries. Almost anywhere you look, from electronics to information, innovation cycles are turning over faster than ever before.

Too often, companies grow risk-averse as they grow larger. They play it safe, or think they are doing so; they grow resistant to the tough – but transformative – actions that are required if they want to stay ahead of the changes around them. To succeed over the long term, we have to take these shots. We have to be brave enough for the bold near and far term actions that will lead to the greatest success.

Risk is inevitable no matter what. But it can be mitigated – even mastered – if you prepare every step along the way. Before Michael Jordan performed under the spotlight, he might have run a million drills and taken a million shots. Still, he could not have achieved true greatness on his own.

Businesses cannot “practice” like sports teams do, but they can – and must – assess their “game” carefully and honestly. They need to analyze themselves, their strategy, and their competitors. They need stars and stand-outs. But like Jordan they need a team behind them, working in sync. And once this care has been taken, the best leaders drive forward. Because in business, as in sports, if you are playing it safe, you might as well just sit back and let the competition get ahead.

Andrew Liveris
About the author: 

Andrew N. Liveris is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Dow Chemical Company, a materials, polymers, chemicals and biological sciences enterprise, with 2015 annual sales of nearly $49 billion.  He is the author of Make It in America, and served as Co-Chair of U.S. President Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership steering committee. He sits on the Board of Directors of IBM and is Vice Chair of the Business Roundtable, an Executive Committee Member and past Chairman of the U.S. Business Council, and a member of the U.S. President’s Export Council, the Concordia Leadership Council and the Australian government’s Industry Growth Centres Advisory Committee. He serves as a trustee for the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, the California Institute of Technology and the United States Council for International Business.