Purpose-driven companies – as well as sporting teams – that can clearly define business strategy and identity before addressing tactical activities have been proven to perform better.

Previously, claiming that business needed a purpose flew in the face of the general narrative. Milton Friedman once wrote that there is,

“one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits, so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962)

It’s the same with sport.

Famously, it used to be considered that,

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” Red Sanders

The purpose of everything was to win, to out-perform the others, to be the best and to ruthlessly discard anything that contradicted or hindered this pursuit.

It turns out though, that this zero sum mentality is losing traction in the business world. According to Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO at EY,

“companies with an established sense of purpose – one that’s measured in terms of social impact, such as community growth, and not a certain bottom-line figure – outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 times between 1996 and 2011.”

This is why “Friedman’s perspective and the prevailing views of the world today aren’t entirely in conflict,” says Weinberger. In fact, businesses today are finding that doing good also means doing well. For instance,

It turns out that sport has become similar, even if the primary aim is still victory.

At first glance, the purpose of sport – of any game or competition – is to win. However, those that win, and then win again and again and again, play for something more than finishing first. Winning alone is simply not sustainable.

Think about those that win over and over. If winning was the only thing, they would stop immediately on achieving it. Sport is hard and stopping the torment and turmoil of training would be very easy. Conversely, if your only purpose is to win and you don’t manage it, you’re in a dangerous psychological position. It can lead to a feeling of worthlessness and that’s a dangerous road to go down.

The best in the world are the best because they develop a deep and authentic commitment to their sport beyond winning. They love the process, the practice and the play. They love to win – to deny this would be foolish – but why do athletes play past their prime if not for the joy of being there?

Roger Federer is often described as taking a true joy in playing tennis, his purpose being to serve tennis by entertaining himself and his fans. The New York Times said that ‘In many ways, watching Federer practice exceeds the entertainment value of watching him compete. It’s pure play’.

Mats Wilander joins in, saying,

“I always tell people that when you watch Federer, don’t just watch him play the point. Watch what he does in between points. He’s always fiddling with a tennis ball or with his racket, and he’s hitting an extra shot, trying some crazy drop shot when the point is over, or flicking the ball to a ball kid after a missed serve. Nobody else does that. Nobody has ever done that. And he still does it. Wimbledon final — it doesn’t matter. He just seems to enjoy the feeling of having the ball on his strings.”

Many athletes partner with a cause; a foundation, a charity or a project. They work with communities, with children or with people driven to change the world in some way.

Serena Williams is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, has helped build schools in Africa, fought against breast cancer and promotes access to education for Asian children. At Look to the Stars, she’s listed with 13 charities and 29 causes.

Juan Mata started his own foundation named Common Goal, announcing that he was pledging 1% of his salary to charity and encouraging his contemporaries to do the same.

The best athletes recognise their unique position to positively impact a larger audience with their actions and to mentor and inspire others along the way.

Commitment to a greater purpose allows top athletes to bounce back more quickly after failure, to continue working and fighting through setbacks and missteps and to outperform their peers time and time again because they are working for something bigger than themselves.

Making purpose a competitive advantage when winning is unlikely

There’s now more of a recognition of being realistic about your position in the sporting firmament and making use of your distinct advantages. Think of football teams like Borussia Dortmund or Ajax who know that their resources can’t match up to the big guns, plan accordingly and are renowned for their talent development. If you’re a serious young player, Dortmund has to be regarded as one of the best choices you can make rather than hopping straight to a super club which could counterintuitively hinder your personal growth rather than speed it.

Essentially, what’s being advocated here is outlined in Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. This approach puts purpose at the centre of your business, making it your driving force rather than a bolt on. The benefits can be as follows:


  • can hone your strategic response – it keeps you future focussed rather than worrying about the immediate term
  • sets boundaries. By being clear about what you won’t do, you strip away considerations and hone your decision making
  • simplifies – it keeps you moving when confronted by complexity
  • can inspire original ideas and creativity in an organisation
  • breeds innovation – guided by purpose, employees can be empowered to recast themselves as problem solvers and value providers
  • acts as a north star during periods of change and upheaval – it enables a business to remain mission-focussed, even if they innovate their process and offering
  • keeps employees coming back for more – it engages them and helps them through periods of distress or ennui

To conclude, it’s clear that having a clear purpose, in sport or business, should inform your approach rather than the other way around. A purpose lets people know who you are, how you operate and what you’re here to do. So if you want to win in the long run, Start With Why.


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