10 Sports Leadership Books That Will Inspire You to Lead

10 Sports Leadership Books That Will Inspire You to Lead

10 Sports Leadership Books That Will Inspire You to Lead banner

Those who love athletics and are serious about business leadership have probably noticed that a similar competitive spirit permeates both the sports field and the corporate boardroom. If you want to rise to the C-suite in sports management or sports administration, you owe it to yourself to learn about the industry greats who came before you. 

But even if you take a different path in your business career, you can learn a great deal from examining exceptional leadership in the sports industry. Plus, books about athletics are generally exciting to read — whether it’s a tell-all memoir written by a legendary basketball coach or a comprehensive guide to becoming a better leader based on hands-on experience with players and teams.

10 Must-Read Books Related to Sports Leadership

Whatever your ultimate reason for reading them, the following 10 sports leadership books will provide inspiration to leaders in athletics and beyond:

1. Leading With the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life by Mike Krzyzewski

Otherwise known as Coach K, Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski is nothing if not one of the most popular and celebrated coaches in the history of sports. As the head coach of the men’s basketball team at Duke University, Coach K led the Blue Devils to five straight Final Four appearances, which ended in back-to-back championships. Many of Coach K’s players have gone on to achieve superstardom in the NBA.

In his book Leading with the Heart, Coach K explains his approach to leadership, which relies heavily on the bedrock life and leadership lessons he learned as a captain in the U.S. Army. He presents five key principles of effective team leadership that can be applied on the basketball court, on the battlefield, or in the business world. These principles include remaining true to your core leadership values, communicating with inspirational impact, and practicing adaptability and resilience to cope with unforeseen challenges.

2. The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh

A legendary figure in NFL history, Bill Walsh is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and holds NFL Coach of the Year designations from both 1981 and 1984. As head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he won three NFC Championships and three Super Bowls.

Near the end of his life, Walsh sat down with bestselling author Steve Jamison to record a comprehensive lecture on effective leadership. Equal parts informative and inspiring, these meetings became the source of The Score Takes Care of Itself. Serving as Walsh’s parting words of wisdom, this book shares a uniquely enlightening leadership approach—one that, in the estimation of many, changed the game of football forever.

However, the wisdom that Walsh imparts has implications that reach far beyond the football field. In the words of the publisher, “Bill Walsh taught that the requirements of successful leadership are the same whether you run an NFL franchise, a Fortune 500 company, or a hardware store with 12 employees.”

3. Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization by John Wooden

Another legendary coach who was much beloved by his players, John Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to 10 Division I NCAA national championships within a period of 12 years, and seven of these championships were sequential. No other Division I team in history has won more than four championships in a row.

Over the course of his 41 years as a coach, Wooden maintained a consistent leadership approach with a pronounced focus on team-building. “Team spirit, loyalty, enthusiasm, determination,” he writes in Wooden on Leadership. “Acquire and keep these traits, and success should follow.

“Well-ordered and easy to understand, Wooden on Leadership takes readers through every step of his team-building journey and features handy guidelines such as Wooden’s much-admired “Pyramid of Success” and “12 Lessons in Leadership.” To clarify matters for visual learners, this book features numerous helpful graphics, diagrams, and illustrations.

4. Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders by L. David Marquet

Although most of this list’s books about leadership in sports were written by experts in one or more sports, Turn the Ship Around! is the work of a former Navy captain. While in charge of a nuclear-powered submarine called the Santa Fe, David Marquet discovered that the “know all, tell all” approach to leadership that the military had taught him has dangerous limitations. Specifically, he inadvertently gave his crew an impossible order that immediately caused a potentially disastrous breakdown in organizational order. 

Yet, he turned this momentary negative into an enduring positive by developing a new leadership model that complicated the traditional leader-follower military model by ceding more autonomy to subordinate officers and enlisted sailors. Marquet tells his story and details his leadership approach in Turn the Ship Around!, a book that USA Today calls “one of the 12 best business books of all time.”

5. The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by Sam Walker

Sam Walker is neither an athlete nor a coach but rather a veteran sports journalist and editor who spearheaded the birth of The Wall Street Journal’s award-winning sports coverage in 2009. His widely acclaimed book The Captain Class is the result of extensive interviews with team-building experts as well as competitors and administrators in all areas of athletics. 

Drawing upon these sources, Walker discovered that 16 of the most dominant teams in the history of sports share leaders with a similar set of uncommon traits. Refining his analysis, he ultimately identified seven characteristics of the effective leader (or, in his words, the “Captain Class”). These characteristics include emotional control, boundary pushing, practical communication, and servant leadership.

6. Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life by James Kerr

The New Zealand All Blacks are the most successful international men’s rugby team in history, winning roughly 77% of the matches they have played. The sports team has three Rugby World Cup titles, including unprecedented back-to-back wins in 2011 and 2015. Since the advent of global rugby team rankings in 2003, the All Blacks have sustained success as the top team in the world 80% of the time.

Best-selling author James Kerr released his in-depth account of the All Blacks in 2013 to widespread acclaim, and this book, Legacy, has remained highly relevant ever since. While telling the All Blacks story, Kerr details 15 leadership lessons that transcend sports to apply in a range of different areas of work and life.

7. The Carrot Principle: How the Best Managers Use Recognition to Engage Their People, Retain Talent, and Accelerate Performance by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

Like Turn the Ship AroundThe Carrot Principle doesn’t explicitly focus on sports or spring from the mind of a revered sports professional. However, this book contains numerous influential insights that can greatly improve the work of even the most dedicated athletics leader. From Fortune to The Wall Street Journal, many authoritative news outlets have praised this work by best-selling business writers Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, who favor motivating teams with promises of meaningful rewards (carrots) rather than threats of repellent punishments (sticks).

8. Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Program by Urban Meyer

Another New York Times Best Seller from a celebrated coach, Above the Line remains true to its Lessons in Leadership and Life subtitle by offering practical professional and personal guidance that has spoken to people on all types of career paths from all walks of life. Over his 17 years as a head football coach at the college level, Urban Meyer maintained a 187-32 record, making him the third-highest winning coach in college football history. As the coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes for seven seasons, he led the team to an NCAA record for achieving 30 consecutive conference victories.

9. The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance by George Mumford

Legendary Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson writes the foreword for George Mumford’s book for a very good reason: Mumford served as a consultant for every one of Jackson’s 11 NBA championship teams. Both Mumford and Jackson are passionate advocates of mindfulness practices, and The Mindful Athlete details Mumford’s captivating theories that link psychological matters to athletic performance.

10. Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion by Pete Carroll

Win Forever is another highly worthy contribution to the canon of leadership books by great coaches. Its author, Pete Carroll, found outstanding success at the college level with the USC Trojans and the professional level with the Seattle Seahawks. He is one of only three coaches to win both a college football national championship and the Super Bowl. In Win Forever, he tells how he refined his uniquely positive coaching style through trial and error. As a leader, he recommends maintaining a positive attitude and concentrating on personal performance rather than the performance of opponents.

Take a Deep Dive Into Sports Leadership

Eager to consume books about leadership in sports? You may want to consider a career in sports leadership. For most people, the first step in this process is formal college training in sports leadership or a related field.

A leader in online undergraduate and graduate education, Johnson & Wales University (JWU) offers a career-focused Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Sport Leadership program that is designed for convenience and efficiency. To learn more about completing your degree online, complete our Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].

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