The language of leadership: AI research unlocks the secrets of elite sports coaches

04 July 2022

Ahead of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, research by international law firm Gowling WLG, which analysed millions of words used by elite sports coaches and business leaders, has revealed there are key lessons that company bosses can learn from the world of sport when it comes to leadership language.

Using artificial intelligence (AI), the firm studied the natural language used by 157 elite sports coaches in articles, transcribed podcasts, interviews and quotes. Sources included Sir Alex Ferguson, Clive Woodward, Jürgen Klopp, and Tom Daly's diving coach Jane Figueiredo.

The language of 130 board-level executives at FTSE 250 companies such as BT, Mastercard and Microsoft was also analysed. This identified the similarities and differences in language used by the two groups, which revealed six key lessons that business leaders can learn from sports coaches.

  1. Strive for constant self-improvement – sports leaders are distinct in their focus on constant self-improvement and investment in practice.
  2. View failure as a positive force – sports leaders adopt a different relationship with failure, emphasising its motivating potential and the importance of analysing the factors that lead to failure.
  3. Channel the power of confidence – great sports leaders see confidence management as pivotal to success – for themselves and their teams.
  4. Create a culture of mutual respect – leaders in sports are more likely to reference the importance of building a culture of mutual respect on a foundation of accountability and trust.
  5. Be tenacious – sports leaders place huge importance on tenacity, priding themselves on their ability to dig deep and keep going in times of hardship.
  6. Lead by example – responsible for setting and enforcing high standards, elite sports leaders often discuss the importance of walking the walk and leading by example.

Gowling WLG are the Official Legal Advisers to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and proud sponsors of Team England.

Michael Luckman, general counsel at Gowling WLG, said: "Ahead of Birmingham 2022, we want to explore the parallels and differences between high performance in sports and business, and what better way to understand this dynamic than to look at the language high performing people in these fields use.

"We're set to witness some incredible sporting achievements at the Games this summer. Our research examines how we can use the magic of sports leadership to unlock the potential of people in business and help high-performing teams go further. We're looking forward to understanding how business leaders can apply these lessons to achieve even more as a team."

Find out more and download the Language of Leadership Playbook. You can also listen to a series of podcasts featuring guests from the world of sport who have used the lessons to break records and win medals at an international level, such as former Team England field hockey player and gold medallist, Sam Quek and Team England swimming gold medallist, James Guy.

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