The Impact of Sport on Leadership: Athletes Turned CEOs

Mon 15th Apr 2024

The skills honed from sports has proven to be the winning edge in corporate success

It is a remarkable fact that 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs played college sport during their time at university[1]. This striking correlation suggests that athletes possess qualities conducive to success in the corporate world. This article presents the story of three CEOs with strong sporting ties, demonstrating the role sport has played in moulding their stellar careers.


Brian Moynihan – The Rugby Player to Leadership Transition

The CEO of Bank of America’s skill in captaining his 200,000 employees is such he was awarded the prestigious ‘CEO of the Year’ title in 2020 by Chief Executive Magazine[2].
Brian Moynihan [3] [4]
However, Moynihan’s leadership qualities were forged on the rugby pitch as the co-captain of the Brown University rugby team, leading them to an Ivy League Championship in his junior year. 

Moynihan is quick to recognise the influence rugby has had on his career success. On a podcast for Chief Executive Magazine, he spoke about the transferable skills acquired from his time as a student-athlete, explaining that captaining his team taught him “a leadership lesson of high order”[5].

“Team sports requires you to be in a group setting, requires you to accommodate, requires you to lead, requires you to step back when somebody can actually do something better than you...all that is very important for business.” [6]

Moynihan, who was credited by the New York Times with having “fostered a turnaround after the 2008 financial crisis”[7], cites this ability to navigate and recover from setbacks as another impact of his sporting experience onto his corporate career.

“You learn how to deal with adversity. Nobody is perfect; everybody loses games. The question is what do you do about the loss? What do you learn from that loss and how do you make sure that doesn’t reoccur?” [8] 


Meg Whitman - Sporting Diversity for Corporate Success

Women experience the strongest correlation between sporting background and career success. In series of studies conducted by Ernst & Young, 90% of female high-level executives were shown to play sports[9]. 65% of the 2017 Fortune list of Most Powerful Women also played sports competitively in either high school or college, and sometimes in both[10]
Meg Whitman [11]
A standout example is Meg Whitman, who has been CEO of Ebay and Hewlett Packard, and who was named 20th on the Forbes List of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World in 2014[12]. Whitman’s sporting repertoire spanned several different disciplines: she played varsity lacrosse, tennis and basketball, and later competed for Princeton University at NCAA Division 1 level squash and lacrosse. 

Like Moynihan, Whitman has stated that her time playing high-level sport has shaped the way she approaches business. In an interview with Adi Ignatius, the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, Whitman attributed her teamwork and leadership skills to her past experiences in sportsand that “the ‘all for one, one for all’ approach, led by a coach”, was part of how she learned to lead.[13]

In her book The Power of Many, she writes that she often uses basketball as a metaphor, or a lens through which she can express her ideas: “when I’m pulling a business team together, I still use those basketball aphorisms I learned as a young person: ‘Let’s pass the ball around a little before game time.’ ‘Do we need man-to-man or zone defense?’” [14]


Indra Nooyi - Pioneering Confidence from Cricket to Boardrooms

The Women’s Sports Federation has found that women involved in sport have higher self-esteem and greater levels of confidence[15].

Indra Nooyi, a former university-level cricket player for Madras Christian College in Tamil Nadu, India, faced a unique challenge upon her arrival in 1971 – there was no women’s cricket team at the university during that time. Her suggestion to start one proved controversial, but Nooyi became the team’s founding member, and other colleges in the area began to follow suit. This trailblazing confidence has clearly served Nooyi well throughout her career: she is on the Amazon board of directors, worked as the CEO of Pepsico from 2006 to 2018, and was ranked as the 11th Most Powerful Woman in Business by Forbes in 2017[16]

Sport has given Nooyi a competitive edge and a means by which to thrive in the male-dominated upper echelons of the corporate world. She comments that “cricket is a team sport and everyone has to play in their positions exceedingly well. It gave me a great appreciation of having players in the right positions”[17] and states that it helped her “think about the team first rather than just performing individual heroics.”[18] 
 Indra Nooyi [19]

 “I’ve learned those things through cricket and carried it with me through my time as a CEO.” [20]

Nooyi, Whitman, and Moynihan affirm a common narrative:  their athletic ventures were instrumental to their career successes. Their stories illuminate how sport experiences become the cornerstone of developing the transferable skills necessary for becoming great leaders.   Playing competitive sports taught them lessons about how to lead and how to work as part of a team, which they were then able to implement in the workplace. Each of them is a standout example of the qualities that athletes can bring to the table and the benefits that sport can provide in the corporate world.