The bonhomie of crowds and what it can teach us

I love sport. End of story. Playing it is great. Testing yourself. As an individual or as part of a team. There are stacks of important lessons that you learn by participating in the sporting arena that will stand you in great stead for improving your executive journey. But sport is about more than that. WATCHING sport is what I’m on about. Much more than watching in fact. If you fully immerse yourself and find yourself matched with the right team and support them in the right way, it can quickly become a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding experience that will help both guide you and buffer you from the highs and lows of life. Some of the reward will come from the team you’re supporting. Most of it comes from the fellow supporters around you. And most importantly the experience will make you laugh out loud. A lot.

I’ve always had a penchant for people watching. In a work context I’m far more naturally at ease watching a situation develop and assessing the intricacies of the people involved than I am shouting the odds and running the show. Of course at times, as a leader, you have to take on this role. But for me it has always been the back up rather than the go to. Outside work I’m rarely happier than when in a large and diverse gathering and able to blend into the background, watching the wonderful diversity of the human spirit weave its magic. At a major sporting event, and in a like minded troupe, this becomes even more heightened. There are different types of crowds, attached to different types of sports. I’ve been lucky enough to immerse myself in a few, but one thing that remains constant across all are the shared senses of fun and frustration, displayed in different ways, but always with an unerring strength of feeling and commonality.

Football crowds have been much maligned over the decades. I’ve always found them to be the most passionate crowds going. Sometimes this can boil over, but if you can stand the heat, the level of passion achieved is worth the pressure. The banter is another level, often tribal, but usually with willing volunteers. Whether it’s fat bloke or bald bloke or bloke with funny hat, the object of the banter and ridicule is usually a willing one. In a dull match following the crowd and enjoying the chants and banter can actually be what makes the day out worthwhile. Life can often be too serious. Football crowds bring it down to a baser level that we all could do with a dose of, in order to stay grounded.

A baseball crowd is much more about pre determined and orchestrated fun. In the US this still gives a crowd the freedom to express itself, which they do, but there are boundaries. Family orientated fun, with well known and heralded routines accompanied by predictable whoops and simplistic chants. But still with a wholesome and heartfelt feel. It’s hard not to be charmed by the experience. In Korea, it was all rather more mesmerising than charming. Incredibly staccato and well drilled units of entertainers led the crowd in non negotiable Fun with a capital F. Everyone seemed to enjoy it – including the small onclave of bemused westerners looking on with equal measures of shock and merriment – but then woe betide those who don’t.

A racing crowd is a different beast. Winning and losing becomes a more personal agony, with far more often at stake than a good time. Pitting your wits against the enemy, anguishing when just losing, eruptions of joy at a big win, and all of this lost isolated incidents in an ocean of humanity. The variety of a racing crowd is what makes it mesmerising. From old to young, posh to sewer rat, individuals to bus loads, but all there for the same unpredictable ride. To learn something about themselves, to prove their worth and to have fun along the way. Not too dissimilar to most corporate value sets.

My favourite crowd set though is a rugby one. Or in particular a Lions rugby crowd. Again vast and varied and intent on fun at all costs, it’s almost what I imagine a religious experience to be like. But with humour and beer. And lots of both. It’s hard to explain the allure of a Lions tour. It’s a fusion of diversity with a single aim – to have an absolute ball. It’s easy to sneer at this seemingly unworthy objective, but in reality what’s life really about if there isn’t a huge dose of healthy enjoyment along the way. And there’s no shortage of volunteers who will tell you that these trips are trips of a lifetime. Try it out. If you throw yourself in it’s impossible to be disappointed.

Leaders can often get overly attached to their own sense of importance. If not considered carefully, even humility can become an overused automatic Executive narrative. Learning and lingering with sporting crowds will quickly batter any pretensions out of the budding executive. The wisdom of crowds is a well known truism. Less well known but arguably more relevant is learning from the angst of crowds and the banter of crowds. Being grounded and keeping your sense of fun will set you well for whatever comes your way in the boardroom. And you’ll have a blast.

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