The road to the top starts on the sports field

Jul 08 2008 by Brian Amble Print This Article

If you have ambitions to become the chief executive of a large public company, your chances will be much improved if you're an eldest child with a strong record of achievement on the sports field.

Research commissioned by the e-business division of the government of the Isle of Man has found that sporting prowess, rather than academic ability, is what marks out Britain's CEOs, with seven out of 10 saying compulsory sport at school positively influenced their business careers.

The same CEOs were also considerably more successful on the sports field than in the classroom, with many excelling at team sports such as rugby and football. Indeed nearly half had won prizes for their sporting excellence compared to just under a quarter wining plaudits for their academic achievements.

What's more only a handful of the CEOs surveyed took part in individual sports such as swimming - a strong clue to suggest that success in team games helped them acquire a mind-set ideally suited to run a business in today's competitive world.

To discover what makes Britain's top bosses tick, psychologist Dr David Lewis and his research team surveyed and psychometrically tested a random selection of 100 chief executives from the UK's top FTSE 500 companies, exploring their family upbringing, academic and sporting achievements.

The results, published in a report entitled "The Naked Chief Executive", point to the fact that CEOs tend to be team players who achieve their ambitions by leading others rather than through their individual efforts.

This also explains why so many CEOs are either the eldest (38 percent) or youngest (34 percent) children in their family. The eldest often grows up faster than their siblings and takes on greater responsibility, while the youngest has to fights

for recognition against their older brothers and sisters.

But in order to persuade others to buy into their vision, follow their leadership, act on their decisions and continue to trust them even in the face of setbacks, CEOs also need to possess an above-average level of emotional intelligence as well as unshakable confidence in their own abilities.

Just how unshakable is clear from the fact that half of those surveyed claimed they never or rarely experience moments of self doubt (and if they do so, be adept at concealing it).

So what does all this mean in practice? According to the report, the combination of self-confidence and leadership skills honed on the sports field means that CEOs tend to be intuitive rather than intellectual thinkers, relying more on practical experience and gut reaction than abstract theorising.

When making difficult decisions, over four in ten said they rely on their intuition rather than training or experience. As a result they feel most comfortable with - and most skilled at solving - practical problems for which there are a reasonably limited number of options.

But far from being a handicap, the report argues that this intuitive way of thinking probably enhances their leadership skills by making them more empathic and more adept at understanding what makes other people tick.