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Leaders need to 'pass' on the sports cliches

It's the middle of football season and, for the most part, that's a good thing in my book. I follow college football with the same fervor most thirty-something women reserve for shoe shopping. I have been known to scream much louder at televisions than my husband after an interception or a blown call. And I have resisted the temptation to devote an entire blog post to the leadership problems that have befallen my beloved Georgia Bulldogs this season. (Can someone please tell Mark Richt to take back the play calling from offensive coordinator Mike Bobo? Just because you delegated responsibility once doesn't mean you can't take it over again.)

But the one thing I can't stand about this time of year is the way football analogies seem to crop up even more in leaders' speech than they already do. Here's AOL CEO Tim Armstrong at an investors' conference in late September: "I promised investors, no hail mary passes. There won't be hail mary passes with the cash." Or GE Energy CEO John Krenicki yesterday after GE's acquisition of oil-and-gas equipment maker Dresser: "This is another sign we're playing offense."

The usual argument against using sports analogies to, um, rally your team, is that they aren't made for a diverse audience. In other words, women don't get them. While I take issue with that statement (see above), and I'm sure it's true in some cases, the real reason leaders should stop already with the sports lingo is much simpler: It's annoying, and it makes you look inauthentic.

The problem is pervasive. This blog post does a hilarious job rounding up the ubiquity of the sports analogy, and we've all no doubt let the words "coach," "team," and "bench strength" enter our workplace lexicon. While that can get out of hand--especially when CEOs refuse to use the word "employee" because they think saying "team member" makes people feel better about their frozen salaries and dwindled job security--phrases like that are so ingrained in corporate speak today that most people don't notice them.

But when the sports analogy gets overplayed, it ceases to be useful. Not because people don't understand it, but because it's more likely to have your people rolling their eyes than feeling motivated to work better or smarter. The manager who talks about fumbling the ball when something goes wrong, or using the hurry-up offense on a competitor, or being in the red zone when quarterly numbers are close to being met sounds like a caricature, not a leader.

Like its awful cousin, corporatese ("going forward, our customer centric metrics will be optimized and enabled for actionable deliverables"), overwrought sports analogies distract people and muddle the message. Simple, direct guidance, with honest, candid feedback, is really the only language managers should use. So much of office life is already a cliche. Must leaders make it worse?

By Jena McGregor

 |  October 8, 2010; 6:44 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Humor , Leadership advice , Sports leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree completely, well said.

Posted by: jgoldbe4 | October 10, 2010 11:32 AM

Totally agree! Also agree with the commenters who want to throw out the military/war metaphors too. And I'll add mine, though not metaphors but just as annoying: "robust" and "reinvent yourself".

Posted by: lsmith1 | October 9, 2010 6:05 PM

Kathymac1, how in heaven's name do you get to "the government" in this essay? Jena neither says this or implies it. Or are you one of those commenters who posts under every story something negative about "the government"? Next time you need help from the fire department or police -- "the government" -- maybe you should live by your words for once and decline that help.

Posted by: WestCountry2 | October 9, 2010 3:08 PM

I agree with you 100% on this one, Jena. The first, and most latest sports cliche that needs to be banished is "game change" or "game changer". I know the recent book about the 2008 Presidential election has helped catapult this phrase in common vernacular, but now it's just annoying to hear it.

Posted by: bubbad | October 8, 2010 1:09 PM

ok, now you want to the government to tell us how to talk. God help us

Posted by: kathymac1 | October 8, 2010 12:17 PM

Your point about diversity is important, but not for the reason you state. I'm an NFL freak the way you are a college football freak (I'll become a college football freak again once Syracuse regains its former glory...but I digress). I'd like to think sports society is over the "women can't grasp football" cliché.

However, it's still considerate to communicate with people from other cultures without the clichés—not just sports but other types of clichés as well. In my industry, people from India dominate the work landscape. Some of them get American football, some don't. Other sports, I'm not so sure of, although I think most of them would get baseball. WE also have large numbers of Asians, and an increasing number of Eastern Europeans. We can't assume those folks automatically know what a Hail Mary or a prevent defense means in a corporate context.

It's not political correctness, it's just common courtesy.

Posted by: bucinka8 | October 8, 2010 12:04 PM

I agree completely. The sooner we banish corporatese and tired sports metaphors, the sooner managers will actually have to think about what they're saying. And I might be spared the hives when I listen.

Besides, do the Mr. Hail-Mary-Passes have any idea how ridiculous we look to our business partners and political allies abroad? Even foreigners who speak perfect English struggle to understand we're saying, or think our executive class can't be very bright.

Posted by: Hunter | October 8, 2010 9:59 AM

I'm in complete agreement, Jena. This overuse of the sports metaphor may have subtly pushed American businesses toward overemphasis of the bottom line and inadequate emphasis on what the business is all about. Today, executives are not investing their record reserves in new products or increased production; they're having their companies buy back their own stock to better serve their investors.

And while we're getting rid of metaphors and analogies, let's quit using military leaders as examples of leadership.

Posted by: jlhare1 | October 8, 2010 9:28 AM

Your point is well-taken, but analogy, metaphor, and story are useful communication tools precisely because they are known, generally understood, and can imbue meaning often more memorably or with less verbiage ... not muddle the message as you suggest. What makes an easily understood phrase into an overwrought cliche is a bit in the eyes of the beholder and not universal truth as you seem to be asserting.

Posted by: jcindy | October 8, 2010 6:15 AM

Jena, you're mostly regarded by serious readers as a bit of a wet-brain, but you finally got one article half-right.

Conversely, a big round of boos for these shallow nut-cakes in sports and coat-and-tie politics and business and broadcasting that talk of "going to war", "it's a fight", "it's a battle" and other choice analogies as if anything they do is equal to the strains and horrors of REAL wars, battles and fights.

One day, Jena, that brain of your might dry out and YOU TOO will be a "real" writer. Just like Dana Milbanks. Cough, cough..

Posted by: JamesChristian | October 8, 2010 5:26 AM

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