Books by and about great sporting heroes have always had an influence on businesspeople. Just look at the most common response to our question about favourite writers in the CIO Questionnaire: not some management guru but cyclist Lance Armstrong.
This month alone, two of our profiled CIOs have cited It’s Not About the Bike as an influential read, and the chronicle of Armstrong’s childhood, early successes, cancer battle and triumphant comeback would easily be dismissed by a Hollywood producer as too far-fetched.
One theme that runs through the book is of the Texan’s determination to overcome the longest of odds. Armstrong’s single mother encouraged him to take up triathlons, and worked all hours to pay for his hobby. At 21 he duly became cycling’s youngest world champion and the youngest winner of a Tour de France stage.
This us-against-the-world motif continues as the death of a teammate Fabio Casartelli inspires Armstrong to complete his first Tour, before he is diagnosed with testicular cancer which had spread to his brain, lungs and stomach.
He is given just a 40 per cent chance of survival, but with a post-cancer career already in mind, opts for pioneering but aggressive chemotherapy that would avoid damage to his lungs. He beats the cancer and after a step-by-step rehabilitation, wins the Tour de France in a record time and soon after fathers his first son.
The rest is well documented by the small library of exposés that followed, but none portray the ruthlessness and determination of the man quite as well as his own memoir.
It’s easy to see where business lessons can be learnt. Here is a man with complete faith in his own ability who is open to the input of others but isn’t afraid to burn bridges – the team that dropped him at the first sign of illness gets his full wrath, while sponsors who remained loyal are basking in his reflected glow to this day.
Even his team’s tactics, with their bluff and perfectly timed attacks, offer lessons for business, but really it’s the book’s inspirational narrative that makes it so memorable.
A follow-up, Every Second Counts, was sold as a self-help guide, but despite glib soundbites on competition (“The better your opponent, the better you have to be”) and teamwork (“a team is a group of people who share the same aim, experience, and values”) it never struck the inspirational chords that It’s Not About the Bike reached.
Another much-cited book is Sir Alex Ferguson’s Managing My Life, the memoirs of the feted Aberdeen, Scotland and Manchester United boss. Ferguson is a famously shrewd operator and there is plenty here for those intrigued by the Glaswegian’s ability to bring the best out of even the most pampered millionaires. His ability to empathise with players and know instinctively when carrot and stick need to be used is fabled. The most intriguing passages deal with how he managed mavericks and the ruthlessness with which he got rid of great players deemed surplus to requirements.
Ferguson has always been canny in dealing with his own career, noting the importance of leaving a club when it has reached the zenith of its possibilities and the requirement of having a family that understands the pressures of his career. He has clearly been superb at managing upwards, controlling his supposed bosses with clever management of the media such as timely disclosures of disappointment when requested player purchases were not completed.
Underpinning all is the punishing work ethic and naked ambition that so often sees working-class boys rise to the top of football and many other professions. The only quibble is that since the book’s 1999 publication, Sir Alex has continued to collect trophies and face new challenges, leaving it in need of an update.
On the money
In the US, Billy Beane is a totemic figure in what business would call maximising return on investment. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball examines his success on relatively meagre budgets at the Oakland Athletics baseball club, based on Beane’s close reading of key game indicators, sometime known as Sabermetrics, rather than relying on emotional hunches. Although recent results have been less impressive, his techniques are viewed with similar fascination as applied to those of a Sam Walton/Michael Dell type of figure. Or, for purposes of local comparison, maybe a rich man’s version of Blackburn Rovers boss Sam Allardyce.
Formula One’s fascination is rarely wheel-to-wheel combat but more often the politics of major manufacturers and global brands, as well as the engineering brilliance of the people who build and drive the cars. Surviving this 200mph stock exchange is like board operations on high-octane fuel.
The Piranha Club is a unique insight into Eddie Jordan’s entry to F1, and takes its title from how a rival team manager welcomed the Irishman to the sport. At the centre of the book is the story of how Michael Schumacher was nabbed by the Benetton team from Jordan, but the real story is about the political elements at play, including TV rights, marketing value and global business plans. For CIOs joining the board, it’s an insight into everything that must be considered in decision-making processes.