It’s Never Just a Game

–Sport’s deep lessons for leadership and life

George Orwell once wrote: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play.  It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words, it is war minus the shooting.”

He was very, very wrong; but also, quite right.

Serious sport can certainly fuel hatred, jealousy, boasting, cheating, and sadism in some people.  However, in others, it promotes courage, self-discipline, a commitment to honesty and fair play, and a sense of justice – in short, good character.

Whether it‘s the Super Bowl or a squash match between two aging businessmen, sport carries deep lessons for leadership and life that not only reflect the wider culture but also help shape it.  The self-righteous tut-tutting of sports journalists, telling us it‘s only a game when emotions run high after a defeat suffered by our team, is woefully uninformed.

Sport is an expression of the play instinct that human intellect directs towards the creation of culture.  At the very origins of civilization we find an innate sense of play manifesting itself in different ways, some serious, others playful.  These various play forms give expression to the human affinity for rhythm, harmony, symmetry, dramatic conflict, heroic endeavor, and consummation, and in so doing create culture.

The sense of play is strongly associated with striving for excellence, earning the esteem of others, and aesthetic fulfillment.  Music, art, and logic all find expression in the different forms of play.

Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens tells us: “In myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom, and science.  All are rooted in the primeval soil of play.”

And George Will noted that: “Greek philosophers considered sport a religious and civic undertaking…morally serious because mankind’s noblest aim is the loving contemplation of worthy things, such as beauty and courage.”

The word play is scarcely able to cover its astonishing range of meanings.  Play implies fun, but is usually taken seriously, and not only must you play the game, but you can engage in wordplay, horseplay, child‘s play, or a power play, and you can choose whether to play fair, play dirty, play your part, play the fool, play for keeps, play the field, play for time, play fast and loose, play your cards right, play havoc, or perhaps write a play, or play the guitar or violin, or just play down the fuss and become someone else‘s plaything.  And so on.

So we shouldn‘t be surprised that playing the game is as important in business and the professions as it is in sport and all forms of play.  Not for nothing do corporates pay through the nose to have sporting heroes give motivational talks to their teams.

And consider how passionately successful CEOs emphasise that their achievements rest on making their work fun.

Business isn‘t supposed to be a game, schooling isn‘t supposed to be a game, nor socialization, nor personal development – yet sport is all of those and much more besides.

There is absolutely no reason to be embarrassed by the expansive role it plays in our society.  And the technocrats, who see the purpose of life as making money, and people as mere economic units, should note that sport contributes almost three percent of national GDP in the US, and certainly much more if its immeasurable influence on other areas of the economy is taken into account.

Consider the realities of sport, and play in the wider sense, in our lives.  It is an inescapably moral endeavor, with the conduct of players, coaches, administrators, officials, and spectators constantly judged by everyone.  Sport is important in its own right and doesn‘t have to be the means to some other purpose, like making money.  If two professional boxers agree to donate their earnings to charity, they will still be motivated to win the bout.

Sport is a metaphor for life that unfolds in its own time and space, offering glimpses of the honour, beauty, and virtue mysteriously related to human fulfillment.  It releases our emotions – exhilaration, tension, fear, anger, frustration, wonder, and euphoria – challenging us to show the world the kind of people we are.

Moreover, sport kindles creativity as it feeds on our competitive spirit.  It demands ongoing strategic and tactical thinking, endless skill development, and unbridled innovation in technology, organization, marketing, and many other areas.  And sport provides our clearest understanding of three vital concepts in business – leadership, teamwork, and professionalism.

However, sport does not in itself drive the development of character and culture.  It is the furnace in which they are formed, but the driver is the human will, influenced, positively or negatively, by intellect and the passions.  The play instinct is released in the arena of relationships, where we have to choose for ourselves how we play the game of life.

Professional sport is not to blame for the corruption now rife within; people are – those who have chosen to be dishonest, undermining the game to promote their own gratification.  They are the spoilsports.  And please don‘t excuse their failings by indicting society at large for being obsessed with winning.  That‘s like blaming art for the failings of poor artists.  Winning is an essential part of all play.

James Schall spells out the politically incorrect reality:

The real reason we play the game is to find out who wins, and the style with which they play to win.  This is why games are fascinating, why we play them; because that is the only way to find out who plays better, who plays best of all.

Orwell was wrong about sport having nothing to do with fair play – fair play is precisely what it‘s about. And sportspeople who honour that ideal make a priceless contribution, cultural and economic, to society.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. Article that I particularly appreciate for my sporting passion and interest in behaviors in work organizations such as sports. Thanks for submitting this topic.
    Sport is the representation and the perfect mirror of the society that works: competition, speed, conflict, struggle, challenge, tension, change, stress, results, are all conceptual paradigms that result not only in business, but also in competitions.
    The sport is based on the ability to merge pride and prejudice, heart and intellect, organization and creativity, talent and programming, to become a national figure able to grow and transform an entire nation from spectator to player!!
    The sports world and the working world have numerous points of contact: in the field as in life, the ability to know how to work with others is the essential requirement to be successful but, above all, even more importantly, to be able to share your successes and victories with people close to us. What is the point of being the best if you don’t have anyone to share your joy with?
    Working in a group, while enhancing the peculiar talents of each one, is today the fundamental requirement that companies require from new graduates. An increasingly basic concept that has innumerable similarities with the sporting dynamics of team play. The ability to play as a team is now considered to be one of the most relevant characteristics within a company organization. In modern enterprises, every result is pursued and achieved collaboratively. This is why a company that manages to form a cohesive and close-knit working group has more chances of achieving success.
    These concepts are widely present in sport. Playing sports and managing a team means building relationships, embracing the social fabric: sport must create all this and constitute aggregation. The unity of a team is essential to achieve victory and a leader must set rules to create motivation. It’s exactly like in the corporate business world. And if sometimes it happens to lose this too must be accepted as a training event.
    Just think of Human Resources: they represent, and are universally recognized as the key to strong and effective organizations, and in the specific case of sport they play a predominant function, since the main structure of any club or sports association is represented by players, coaches, volunteer or salaried staff, technical staff, managers, sports doctors, owners and many others, but nevertheless it is surprising to note that very little has been written about Human Resource Management in the context of sport.
    Sports organizations are faced with a wide variety of environments in which to move, represented by competitions, ever-changing markets, the search for ever new financial resources, regulations and institutional contexts. In order to better cope with such dynamic and poorly predictable situations, managers who deal with sports need a great sensitivity towards the people with whom they interact, in order to identify their abilities, defects, values, differences, potentials.
    Although well-defined organizational structures are needed, together with financial and marketing strategies, they are not sufficient conditions for success. The real possibility of future success for sports organizations lies in the ability of sports managers to deal with human resources from different points of view.
    I believe that all children should be very engaged in sports. I am not referring only to the physical benefits but in particular to the charge of enthusiasm, the desire to play for play, to discover their abilities and their own limits and even to the cheerful acceptance of rules of discipline accompanying the first contact with the sport. I think of the joy that comes with each kind of game, and of the convintion that a possible failure, an imperfection physical or mental, will not stop us to keep playing, and to the acceptation that a friend can be better than us. In sportive environment you can breathe that atmosphere of brotherhood and mutual support, material and moral that, incidentally, is called “solidarity”! A climate that perhaps does not allow to manufacture samples but not even frustrated and marginalized.
    Excellent is a country where culture of sport have spread everywhere and at every level.

    • Thanks Aldo – your detailed analysis fleshes out the reality of how important sport is in any society. Great insights.

  2. Great article, Andre! Leaders can learn many lessons from sports. Business is in its own way a sport. You win in business by competing hard. Football is a physical sport. If you are not physical you could get hurt. Hockey is the same way. The title of your article could not make things any more clear. No, it’s never just a game.