Fortune MPW Summit: Leadership lessons from the world of sports

Not only can leaders learn from champions on the field, but trends in professional sports often spark global conversations that also influence businesses.

“When athletes speak up and when they speak their authentic truth … it can actually open a door of conversation for the larger population — in this case, business — to be able to walk through that door and the whole community and the conversation.” It’s a new place to lead,” said Sarah Mensah, Nike’s vice president and general manager for North America.

industry leaders during a panel on Monday wealth‘s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., pointed to a handful of emerging trends that have pro athletes doing just that in recent years. Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, for example, sparked conversation about mental health during last summer’s Olympics, and professional basketball and soccer teams are pushing for equal pay compared to their male counterparts.

“It’s been wonderful that they can be authentic and be so damn brave,” said Joyce Russell, president of the Adecco Group US Foundation. “If we had a broken leg, we would go to the doctor. But if we had something to do with mental health, we wouldn’t have that.”

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Russell and her colleagues have since started ending company events earlier so employees can get to bed earlier and take a break. She also began reviewing vacation requests to ensure employees were taking advantage of them. They also took a closer look at its mental health benefits.

Panelists also noted that leaders in this space who inspire these conversations also possess the X-Factor qualities that are sought in senior leaders. Athletes don’t just set the tone, they create moves with the approval of their teammates, much like CEOs pursue goals in the boardroom, recover from failure, seek feedback, and foster a team mentality.

Take Michael Jordan for example, said Gail Boudreaux, president and CEO of Elevance Health. “He was an incredibly talented person, but he wanted his team to win with him,” she said.

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But not every leader has to be the polished, under-pressure type like Jordan. There’s also room for disruptors: unconventional players who inspire others through their own example.

“Some of the very best teams had this underdog, this weird Dennis Rodman on the team, a tremendous disruptor,” Mensah said.

And with the right boundaries, you can use that personality to take the team to the next level.

“You don’t want that disruptor or disruptive personality to take the whole moment and take over the whole moment to be so disruptive that it’s not productive,” she added.

Additionally, athletes who are in the lead see failure as an opportunity to improve. They’re not afraid to take risks and they know the game is more mental than physical, Boudreaux said.

“I would argue that when you get to that level, it’s not 80% physical, it’s 80% mental,” she said. Athletes are regularly put into situations and must change their behavior based on the results. When they fail in a situation, they seek help and coaching, she added. Managers should do the same.

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These lessons all translate easily to the boardroom, meaning that encouraging girls to play sports can prepare them for success in their careers. To further that pipeline, Russell said Adecco has begun a partnership with First Tee to help more young people enter the world of golf. Nike also has a new focus on children, knowing that an active child will see positive educational and health outcomes throughout their lives. And Elevance Health has donated full gyms to schools for years to keep kids moving.

“We really want to get kids running,” Boudreaux said.

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