the shape of leadership

Leading With Sportsmanship

Three questions to ask yourself

Kent Ingle on July 3, 2023

There’s something I have rarely (if ever) seen in my many years as a sportscaster — a team placing sportsmanship in front of winning. With countless hours of practice and the sacrifices players make to be at their best, putting aside game points is unthinkable.

Yet, it’s something our softball team at Southeastern University (SEU) did this past season.

When the opposing team’s catcher suffered an injury between first and second base after hitting a grand slam, SEU’s softball players acted unconventionally by picking up the catcher and carrying her across two bases and home plate.

The response put their opponent ahead in the game, which SEU eventually lost. When asked about what they did, the players said, “It was the right thing to do,” and they would love for someone to do the same if it were their own teammate.

As I reflected on the players’ sportsmanship, their actions challenged me on three questions every leader should ask.


How Does Your Team Reflect Its Culture?

The response of the softball players gives a glimpse of the environment their coach created. A game is a perfect situation to identify a team’s culture. When the clock runs, the players make decisions and work to execute the game plan of the coach, following expectations and values instilled during practices.

It’s the same in leadership. When you’re not calling the shots, you should know how those being led will respond to various situations — especially under pressure and when you’ve no control — based on the values you implemented.

Leaders set an organization’s tone, influencing how everyone lives out their roles. Effective leaders create environments where everyone understands the expectations, how to implement core values into their individual roles, and the overall goals they are working toward.

These types of leaders apply the core values of sportsmanship: fairness, respect and graciousness. Fairness requires the best in humanity by valuing the dignity of others. There are equal opportunities for success, and everyone is cheered as if they are the “star player.” The team works out of respect by considering how others would want to be treated if they were in the same situation.

The goal should be to set an example where your team responds to situations when you are not there by making your values evident. It inspires others to take the lead and create a positive environment. Titus 2:7 says, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good.”


Are You Gracious in Winning and Losing?

SEU’s softball team was winning 4-1 when the opposing catcher hit her home run with the bases loaded. By picking up the catcher to carry her around the bases, the SEU softball players put their opponents ahead in the game. Their actions should challenge us to respond with grace and dignity whether winning or losing.

Effective leaders create environments where everyone understands the expectations, how to implement core values into their individual roles, and the overall goals they are working toward.

Competitiveness is everywhere — in the classroom, workplace, the political arena, and even at home. While competition can bring out the worst in some, it can also bring out the best in others as they push toward higher standards. The way you respond as a leader and treat others in the process determines how others view their accomplishments.

You must be willing to put aside standing on the podium of success for what is right. Treat everyone respectfully and fairly, whether in the face of defeat or great achievement. Be the first to encourage others and thank them for the challenge that led to the victory. And make sure your demeanor is consistent in all circumstances.

When you lose, see it as an opportunity for growth rather than emulating the feelings of failure. It doesn’t mean you put aside the feeling of loss, but rather you learn how to approach and recover gracefully from defeat. Set your sights on long-term goals rather than short-term gratification. It’s easier to overcome defeat and keep pressing forward when you are long-term minded.

1 Corinthians 9:24 says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” By acting with grace, make sure your actions in winning or losing model those of Christ.


Does Everyone Know Your Greater Purpose?

The opposing team said the players’ actions spoke “volumes to their character, humanity, and greater purpose.” The SEU players knew that acting in a way demonstrating Christ’s love was greater than winning. While competition is important, SEU’s overall mission is for every student to discover their divine design and use it to serve Christ and the world.

It’s critical that leaders operate with a sense of purpose greater than themselves. Purpose allows leaders and teams to step forward with intention and conviction. It gives them the strength to push through setbacks and the stamina to overcome obstacles.

At the end of the day, as the office lights go out and everyone heads home, you want people to feel fulfilled when it comes to taking steps toward the overall mission. Every decision, every task, and every goal should move your team closer to accomplishing the vision of the organization. Having a sense of purpose will guide your team members and give them a framework to make decisions.

When your purpose transcends personal desires, you can inspire others to join in your journey. If someone were to ask anyone in your organization about their purpose, you would want them to be able to clearly articulate how their role personifies the overall organization’s mission.

As 1 Corinthians 9:25 says, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Ultimately, everything we do is for Christ’s kingdom and the furtherance of His gospel, and that should be evident in how others view our overall purpose. 

One of my favorite parts about leading young adults is learning from their lives. I’ve read several articles (and I’m sure you have too) discussing how sportsmanship is dead, especially in youth athletics. Yet I beg to differ.

Many young adults, like SEU’s softball players, are willing to step up and put winning aside for the common good. And it’s this model we should be following in leadership. How are you implementing sportsmanship values into your leading of others today?

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